By Megan Verlee, Colorado Public Radio
Rancher Kip Farmer navigates his truck over rocky dirt roads in the mountains of Western Colorado. Farmer grew up tending his family's flocks up here, living for weeks at a time in tents and old trailers out on the range. But he's one of few Americans to have any experience with this work.
"It's seven days a week, 24 hours a day," Farmer says. "None of the locals really would want to put in that kind of time and be tied down every day that many hours a day doing a job up away from family and friends."
So instead, Farmer employs around a dozen Peruvian sheep herders on temporary work visas.
As we come down a steep hill, he runs into one of his men and stops to check in. Farmer tells the worker he's left a crate of border collie puppies at the man's trailer, to help tend the flock.
The federal government requires Farmer provide his men with trailers and food, and pay a minimum wage of $750 a month. There's a stack of white envelopes in the center console of his truck, today is payday.
"When I get back to town today, I'll probably send four or five different Western Unions back to Peru," he says. "The ones that have families generally will send $500 or $600 of it home every month."
Most of Farmer's herders have worked with him for ages, and Farmer says he doesn't have any trouble convincing them to renew their visas every three years.
"Employees we have are making a lot more money with us than they would be back home," Farmer says. "So they're bringing resources back to their home country that wouldn't be there otherwise."
For years, though, immigration rights activists have argued the conditions herders put up with aren't worth the money they're paid. They say some ranchers take advantage of their workers, denying them medical care, taking improper deductions from their paychecks, and generally making an already difficult job even more lonely and isolating than it has to be.
Spanish Professor Thomas Acker is one of those fighting for a higher wage and more oversight of working conditions.
"We're expecting these workers to be treated much more poorly than any American would be treated," Acker says. "And the only reason it's going on is because nobody's looking."
Acker doesn't just want the US government to keep a closer eye on the welfare of immigrant sheep herders. He says their home countries haven't been careful enough about looking out for their citizens.
"What we would also like to see is an agency or an entity, somebody that would be watching out for the workers' welfare, when they're signing up for these contracts and making sure they understand what they're getting into before they come over here," Acker says.
Loyaza Devescovi, the Peruvian consul based in Denver, says as a foreign country, the embassy can't influence local law or working conditions. But Devescovi says his office does try to monitor the welfare of his countrymen on the range.
"When they come with the owner of the ranch here to renew the passport or whatever, we also invite them here just to know, how the treatment is at the ranch, what is happening with them, if they're happy etc.," Devescovi says.
Devescovi says he's had good luck taking problems to the industry groups that handle most herder visas. But still a lot of problems slip through the cracks.
Professor Thomas Acker spends a lot of time driving around the Colorado range to talk with workers with the help of a Chilean former herder named Ignacio Alvarado.
On one recent afternoon, they run into a man they've met before at work in a field. They hail him over to the truck and offer him a cold soda and a bit of conversation. The worker doesn't want to give his name because he's scared his employer will be angry if he talks to a reporter, but he does want Acker and Alvarado's help.
Asked about his life on the range, the man says he doesn't have any insurance and the rancher he works for is reluctant to take him to the doctor when he's sick or to listen to his concerns.
"We help our employer," the worker says, "so he should take care of us if we get sick or if we have other problems."
Life is hard in the United States, the man says, but for a decade I've applied for visa after visa to come back for one reason: his family and his sons.
As hard as his life is here, this herder believes he's providing a better one for loved ones at home. For the ranching industry, the fact that most herders renew their visas over and over is proof the system benefits both sides. But advocates for the herders say merely being better than the options back home, shouldn't be good enough for the United States.
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