In Loneliness, Immigrants Tend The Flock

In Loneliness, Immigrants Tend the Flock

By Dan Frosch
The New York Times, February 22, 2009

Rock Springs, WY — Somewhere in Wyomings vast, barren sagebrush country, Lorenzo Cortez Vargas pokes his head out of the rickety camper where he lives and stares into the dirt.

Mr. Vargas, a sheepherder from Chile, spends his days and nights on lonesome stretches of the Rockies, driving 2,000 sheep across Colorado and Wyoming as part of a federal temporary worker program he signed up for more than a year ago.

But like the other sheepherders, or 'borregueros,' in the West, Mr. Vargas has barely any contact with his new country, where he earns $750 a month for working round the clock without a day off.

He lives alone in the crude 5-foot-by-10-foot 'campito' with no running water, toilet or electricity, save for a car battery he has rigged to a small radio. A sputtering wood-burning stove is his only source of heat in winter, a collection of faded telephone cards his only connection to home.

'They never tell you exactly what its going to be like,' Mr. Vargas, 28, said in Spanish. 'But youve got to stick it out here. What are you going to do?'

Sheepherding has long occupied the bottom rung of migrant labor. Most borregueros speak no English; many have only a vague idea of where they are and no knowledge of their legal rights as documented immigrants. The herders enter the country under the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, which allows companies to hire foreigners if no Americans want their jobs.

The harsh, solitary lives of foreign sheepherders in the American West have remained virtually unchanged for more than a century. And government oversight of their circumstances remains piecemeal.

Ranchers say that paying the workers more would crush an industry long in decline. But over the past year, legal and immigrant rights groups have begun a campaign to improve the treatment of borregueros in Colorado and Wyoming, states where their plight is particularly unforgiving.

'Its like going back in time,' said Thomas Acker, a Spanish professor at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, Colo., who hopes to persuade the state legislature to raise herders wages and to require ranchers to improve their standard of living. 'That these men are required to live under these conditions for such long periods is inhumane.'

Their ramshackle campitos often leave the men exposed to the bone-chilling winds and searing summers of the high desert and mountain regions where they toil. Miles from even the smallest town, sheepherders bathe with melted snow or water that is trucked in and use shovels to bury their waste. They eat canned food and the occasional meat, which is also hauled in by ranch workers, but the food often freezes in the winter and spoils in the summer.

'The living conditions are bad,' Jos Ruiz, a former sheepherder from Chile, said in Spanish. 'The food is bad. The access to bathrooms, showers is nothing. In some ranches, its horrible.'

Since the end of the 19th century, men from the Basque region of Spain have been herding sheep in the American West, attracted by a shortage of local workers who would endure such a life. William A. Douglass, emeritus professor of Basque studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, said in an interview that sheepherding 'placed a man in a situation which at times bordered on total social isolation.'

By the mid-1980s, with improved economic conditions in Basque country, ranchers turned mostly to South American sheepherders who qualified for H-2A visas.

Because the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 exempted sheepherders from having to be paid the minimum wage, the Labor Department has relied on statewide surveys to determine their prevailing wage. In Wyoming, ranches pay herders $650 a month. Colorado ranches, like the one Mr. Vargas works for, pay $750.

Peter Orwick, the executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association, said that because of the growing cost of fuel, feed and other necessities, the number of sheep raised by ranchers had declined by 60 percent since 1993. Paying higher wages to the 1,500 sheepherders working in the United States would force many ranches to close, Mr. Orwick said, adding that sheepherders fare better here than in their home countries.

'Because they get food and board, they have no fixed costs other than their phone and postage,' Mr. Orwick said. 'If it werent an attractive job for them, they wouldnt be here.'

Besides low pay, Mr. Ruiz said, sheepherders endure harsh working conditions and sometimes abusive treatment from the ranchers who hire them.

Over the past decade, the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department has conducted more than 100 investigations into mistreatment of sheepherders. But because of the itinerant nature of their work, it is nearly impossible to study and document what is occurring. Colorado and Wyoming inspect campitos annually, but federal standards require only the barest amenities.

'The first thing that comes to mind is that this is a modern day form of indentured servitude,' said Jennifer Lee, a lawyer with Colorado Legal Services, which has been lobbying for improvements. 'It is shocking how these men live.'

Of seven sheepherders interviewed, four said they had not been paid, despite being on the job up to eight months. Current and former sheepherders told of contracting tick-borne illnesses and also of sustaining serious injuries after being thrown from horses. Rarely, they said, did they receive prompt medical treatment.

Virtually all the herders agreed that their working and living conditions were worse than in their home countries but that they needed the money. Wages here, they said, ranged from slightly to significantly more than they earned in South America.

Most borregueros are too frightened of losing their jobs and of being punished to complain, Ms. Lee said, and rarely do they know whom to complain to other than their bosses.

In 2000, the Labor Department filed a lawsuit accusing a Colorado ranch, John Peroulis & Sons Sheep, of beating, starving and exploiting its sheepherders for 10 years. But a settlement required the ranchers only to pay back wages and a $3,000 fine and to submit a manual on how to treat workers.

Last year, Colorado Legal Services filed six complaints with the department on behalf of sheepherders, accusing ranchers of providing abysmal working conditions. In one, a sheepherder said he became so hungry that he ate part of a rotting elk carcass. According to the complaint, his boss accused him of poaching the animal and dropped him off at a local immigration office for deportation. A federal agent there took pity on the man, bought him lunch and helped him contact the state labor department, the complaint said.

Dennis Richins, the executive director of the Western Range Association, a ranching group that recruits sheepherders to the United States, said any rancher caught mistreating a sheepherder was thrown out of the group.

Mr. Richins, a rancher himself, acknowledged that working conditions were tough but said they would be difficult to improve because sheepherding was so transitory and remote. 'Its a hard, lonely life,' he said. 'But why do the sheepherders want to come back a second or third time if things are so bad?'

On a recent weekend, Dr. Acker, the Spanish professor, led a group documenting the lives of Western sheepherders to various campitos in southwestern Wyoming, perched alone or in pairs on the horizon like covered wagons. The bleary-eyed herders were shocked to see the group. Most are not allowed to have visitors, not that many people go to such desolate territory.

Grateful for the visitors and what they brought, the men smiled, clasped their hands and dived into the winter clothes and fresh fruit that Dr. Acker handed out.

One sheepherder, who would not give his name because he feared reprisal from his boss, said the unending loneliness made his life hard. 'I think about my family,' he said quietly. 'I sometimes think Id like to go back just to be with my family.'