(CN) – The federal government claims in a lawsuit filed Thursday that a Colorado agricultural company discriminated against U.S. citizens because it prefers to hire temporary foreign workers.
Crop Production Services denied employment to U.S. workers based on their citizenship status in violation of the Immigration and Nationality Act’s anti-discrimination provision, according to the complaint filed in the Office of the Chief Administrative Hearing Officer.
The office, abbreviated as OCAHO, is a specialized court created by Congress to resolve such claims.
The United States’ complaint is seeking back pay on behalf of the U.S. citizen workers that were refused employment, civil penalties and other relief to “correct and prevent discrimination.”
The complaint alleges that Crop Production Services, or CPS, refused to allow Javier and Ramiro Salinas to work as seasonal technicians at a rice breeding facility in El Campo, Texas in 2016, and refused to interview Ramiro Torres for a seasonal technician job, because the company prefers to hire only temporary foreign workers for those jobs.
Other U.S. citizen workers, yet to be named, were similarly discriminated against, according to the complaint.
Each of the workers had nearly 13 years of agricultural experience, the government says, and knew how to operate farm machinery, although CPS’ job order indicated that no experience was required for the seasonal jobs.
The company allegedly filled all 15 open seasonal technician positions with H-2A visa holders from Mexico, although the temporary work visa program requires employers to recruit and hire available, qualified U.S. workers before temporary foreign workers.
Employers that are permitted to hire non-immigrant foreign nationals for seasonal agricultural work through the H-2A guest worker visa program are also required to avoid discriminating in their recruitment and hiring of employees, but according to the complaint, CPS imposed more burdensome requirements on U.S. citizens than on visa workers.
For instance, the company allegedly required U.S. citizens to complete a background check and drug test before permitting them to work but allowed H-2A visa workers to begin work before completing these checks.
The government’s complaint also claims CPS hired H-2A workers who did not speak English, but refused to employ U.S. citizens with limited proficiency in English.
According to the nonprofit Farmworker Justice, many employers prefer to hire guest workers rather than U.S. workers, because it is more difficult for H-2A workers to complain about wage violations or unlawful working conditions. Visa workers are usually not well informed about their protections under the law, and risk losing their visas and ability to remain and work in the United States if they decide to complain about working conditions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that the lawsuit is “in the spirit” of President Donald Trump’s April executive order on “Buy American and Hire American,” and that the Justice Department “will not tolerate employers who discriminate against U.S. workers because of a desire to hire temporary foreign visa holders.”
“The Justice Department will enforce the Immigration and Nationality Act in order to protect U.S. workers as they are the very backbone of our communities and our economy,” Sessions said. “Where there is a job available, U.S. workers should have a chance at it before we bring in workers from abroad.”
The U.S. citizen workers, represented by the nonprofit Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, have also filed their own private lawsuit in the OCAHO court.
An attorney for CPS did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment. The company is based in Loveland, Colorado.