Meaner Pastures

Life can get wild and woolly for herders who flock to the U.S. under a special law.

Under H-2A rules, farmers and ranchers are required to prove that they have tried to recruit domestic employees but failed to find anyone interested in the work. But the report found that many agricultural employers make only a halfhearted attempt to find local help and turn to the H2-A program because foreign labor is cheaper. It also contradicted the claim that there aren't enough legal workers in rural areas to fill the open jobs, adding that "a sudden widespread farm-labor shortage requiring the importation of large numbers of foreign workers is unlikely to occur in the near future."

Despite the criticism, the program has been growing quickly; last year more than 41,000 people were admitted to the U.S. under H-2A. There was even an unsuccessful effort in the last session of Congress to boost the number of people allowed into the country under the program to one million. And Colorado ranchers continue to insist that they can't find Americans willing to accept the demanding conditions that sheepherders endure.

"The sheepherders that come over here have special skills; they're familiar with livestock," says Tom Kourlis, a former executive director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture who runs an 8,000-acre ranch near Craig.

Consul General Carlos Velasco says Peruvians make good sheepherders.
Mark A. Manger
Consul General Carlos Velasco says Peruvians make good sheepherders.

"It takes a certain kind of person to enjoy being alone in a remote area," he adds. Kourlis has four H2-A herders now working on his ranch. He says most ranchers take good care of their sheepherders, and the job makes a huge difference in the lives of the herders and their families. "It's a way for them to improve their quality of life," he says. "We've had herders who send their kids to school because of this or buy a house. It's a way for them to get ahead."

Charles Ryden runs 300 cows on his ranch near New Castle. He says the two H2-A men he employs from Mexico are indispensable. One of them, Jesús, has come to New Castle to work for Ryden for several years in a row. He stays seven months through spring and summer before returning to Mexico for the winter.

"We couldn't make it without Jesús because of the cost of labor for local employees," Ryden says. Jesús helps with calving in the spring and then puts up hay in the summer, he adds. "His work ethic is outstanding. I try to make them stop working for one or two days a week, but they're on a mission to work. They want to work so they can go home."

Ryden pays the men $800 a month and gives them a bonus every year. He sends Jesus to the grocery story to buy his own food. "I sign a check for him, and he goes down to City Market because he knows what he likes to eat," says Ryden. "We have to take care of him."

Because they come from rural areas, the Mexican workers know how to do basic ranching tasks like building fences and plowing, he says. "I've had some tremendous American workers, but when they get married, they have to make more money. A lot of Americans don't know what farming is. These guys come up here and know what to do."

The Peroulises have denied all of the allegations made by their former employees and say they have always followed the law. Their attorney, Lee Christian, insists there have been no beatings or violence against the herders. "We categorically deny that," he says. "There may have been raised voices, but never any physical abuse."

Christian also questions the herders' motivations for testifying. "Most of these guys walked off the job or were fired," he claims. "The testimony was often inconsistent. They said they were starving, but they were allowed to purchase food at any time." He says that although the visas of many of the former herders have now expired, the men have been allowed to stay in the United States in return for cooperating with the Labor Department.

None of the Perouslies would return phone calls for this story.

One witness at the hearing, Eddie Lopez, spoke in defense of the family. Lopez works for an association of ranchers in southern Wyoming that includes the Peroulis family. His job was to monitor the range land where the sheep are kept, and he said none of the Peroulis herders ever complained to him about being hungry or abused.

The Peroulises are being persecuted by the government, says Christian. "The Department of Labor doesn't like my clients because they stand up to them. The Peroulises have spent a bloody fortune trying to clear their name."

In a response to the Labor Department motion filed with the court, Christian noted that the Peroulises have many herders who have been with the family for years, including some relatives of the herders who testified against them. He also noted that Damian -- the herder who was allegedly beaten by Louis Peroulis -- wouldn't be appearing in court since he has returned to Peru. (Peruvian Consul-General Velasco says Damian is still recovering from his injuries in Peru and was too ill to come to Denver to testify in court about his treatment.) Damian had abandoned his camp and cruelly left his horse tied up to the sheep wagon, Christian claimed, then sought shelter with a rancher in competition with the Peroulis family.

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