The piles smelled so strongly that the odour hung around the motel like a cloud

Author : beritasiang
Publish Date : 2021-05-09 09:21:09

The piles smelled so strongly that the odour hung around the motel like a cloud

In the pandemic, hundreds of Chinese migrants who lost their jobs moved to a remote city on the Navajo Nation Indian reservation in New Mexico, to do what they thought was legal agricultural work. Instead, they and the local Native community found themselves pitted against one another in a bizarre cautionary tale about the boom in cannabis production in the US, and the impact on Asian migrant labourers.

When Xia (not her real name) first heard about the job as a "flower cutter", she pictured roses.

Details were scant, but a roommate told her it was 10 days' work for $200 a day, room and board included. Unemployed in the pandemic and unable to send money back to her adult children in southern China, Xia had been living at one of the crowded boarding houses common in the large Asian immigrant enclave of LA's San Gabriel Valley. The job sounded like a fine temporary solution.

In early October, Xia and five other women made the 11-hour drive to the outskirts of Farmington, a small city nestled in the stunning but sparsely-populated high desert of northern New Mexico. When they arrived, their new boss checked them into a bright pink, roadside motel called the Travel Inn.

In a series of rooms on the first floor, Xia and her co-workers sat in chairs around heaps of plant material that were delivered by rental van in the night, trimming the "flowers" off the top. These were definitely not roses - the fan-leafed plants reminded Xia of àicǎo, or silvery wormwood, which the Chinese burn to ward off mosquitoes. The piles smelled so strongly that the odour hung around the motel like a cloud.

But for the moment, Xia was content. A convivial middle-aged mother of two, she had worked many jobs since arriving in the US in 2015 - home carer, nanny, masseuse. This was a lot less lonely.

"I was happy. I could talk to other people at work," she recalls in Mandarin. "I much prefer cutting flowers."

Just three days into their work, there was a knock at the door. Xia assumed it was someone calling them to dinner, until she saw men in uniforms with badges. Initially, it was impossible to communicate, until an officer who spoke Mandarin arrived. He asked the workers if they knew what kind of "flowers" they were cutting. One by one, they shook their heads.

"I wasn't afraid. I thought, 'I didn't commit any crime,'" recalls Xia. "When they put the handcuffs on me, I realised it's serious."

As a police convoy drove the workers to jail, someone attempted a joke: "Hey, we are almost 60 years old, and it's our first time being handcuffed and riding a police car!"

With no translators to help communicate with law enforcement or her court-appointed lawyer, Xia says that for days she did little more than sit on her bunk and cry. She assumed the worst: that whatever she'd done would land her in prison doing hard labour, and she would never make it back home.

"I thought, 'My life is over,'" she says. "I thought of my son, and that he wouldn't even know if I died in America."

Meanwhile, her mugshot and those of her co-workers were all over the local news. They'd been charged with multiple felonies for trafficking, conspiracy and intent to distribute a controlled substance: high-grade marijuana.

What Xia did not know was that over the summer, about 30 minutes up the highway from the bright pink motel, a massive marijuana farming operation had sprung up in the tiny town of Shiprock on the Navajo Nation reservation. Hundreds of Asian migrant workers like herself had flocked there from all over the US to live and work on the farms, having lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

It was part of a recent, surprising expansion of Chinese-American investment into the US cannabis industry. Investors sought to recoup losses from shuttered restaurants, spas and tourism businesses by ploughing millions into cannabis - all despite the fact that marijuana remains a social taboo in the Chinese immigrant community.

While hardly the only minority community interested in cannabis, in rural parts of the US, the Asian workforce stood out. This set the stage for a bitter fight with locals on the Navajo Nation, where unscrupulous entrepreneurs took advantage of the complex and confusing laws governing the industry, and set the farms on course for disaster.

"Everybody at one time was for the hemp because they lost their jobs in the pandemic," recalls one Navajo Nation resident. "And then all of a sudden things changed... I think it turned everybody against one another."

The view from the top of Bea Redfeather's property on the Navajo Nation is breathtaking and severe. To the southwest is the cathedral-like Tsé Bitʼaʼí, or Shiprock pinnacle, a giant rock which rises nearly 1,580ft (480m) from the desert floor. Redfeather, a petite, 59-year-old tax accountant and silversmith, has lived here almost 30 years.

"This was peaceful," she says, looking out over the horizon. "Calming."

All that changed in early June, when Redfeather saw an enormous lorry jostling down the narrow frontage road that separates her property from her neighbour's. A group of men got out and started unloading equipment into the empty field.

It astonished Redfeather that on a reservation where new development is tightly controlled by tribal bureaucracy, a large-scale farming operation was going up across the street without her even hearing about it. The Navajo Nation was also struggling with a severe coronavirus outbreak, one of the worst in the country, and movement on and off the reservation was supposed to be tightly controlled.

She decided to record what was going on on her phone.

"They're like, 'What are you doing here?'" she recalls. "These are non-Natives. So of course, I fired back saying, 'What are you doing here? You guys aren't allowed here.'"

Not long afterwards, Redfeather says that San Juan River Farm Board president Dineh Benally drove up, and came over to speak to her. She says he asked her how they could resolve the situation.

"I says, 'I'm going to stop you and what you're doing.' And you could see it in him. He was angry," she recalls.

Benally, a former civil engineer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the eldest son of a formidable tribal politician, was well known for his ambition to introduce the profitable cultivation of hemp and marijuana on the reservation.

New Mexico legalised medical marijuana back in 2007, but state laws have no bearing in Indian country, which is governed by federal and tribal law. In 2017, Benally lobbied hard for a bill that would have legalised medical marijuana in the Navajo Nation. He called his efforts a "crusade" in memory of his late mother, who died of pancreatic cancer.

Her last four months of her life she suffered," he told the tribal council, according to the Navajo Times. "She didn't have the medication to have a better part of life."

The bill, however, was withdrawn before it ever came to a vote.

Benally saw another way into the industry after the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills made it legal to grow industrial hemp. Like marijuana, hemp comes from the cannabis plant, but it contains almost no THC, the psychoactive compound that causes a user high. However, before hemp can be farmed, the state must first create a system to regulate production, including a way of testing THC concentration. Benally tried to convince the Navajo Nation leadership to do this so that the tribe could begin generating much-needed income from textiles and CBD oil products. But the council never showed much interest.

The same year the medical marijuana bill stalled, Benally ran unopposed for the San Juan Farm Board, an entity with limited powers over farming permits on the reservation. This new position, Benally apparently believed, gave him the authority to approve his own hemp "pilot project".

Through his lawyer, Benally declined to be interviewed f

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