Ag Worker Rights Program provides essential support for migrant workers

 

  • Program ensures agricultural workers are paid what they are owed under the law
  • Team addresses harassment and discrimination in the workplace
  • Attorneys travel to regions to provide information to migrant workers and help them understand they are a part of the community

In early August, team members of Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Agricultural Workers Rights Program visited locations in Nebraska to educate migrant workers on the COVID-19 vaccine.

Planning events during a pandemic has been like aiming at a moving target, said Danny Reynaga, Managing Attorney of the program.

“Are the numbers going to continue to go down? Or are they going to be so low that it’s irrelevant and not an issue?” At the time of this interview, this was a concern for the team. But as the numbers of delta variant cases rise across the United States, the situation is certainly fluid.

The program’s focus is to educate migrant workers about their rights and to spread the word that Legal Aid is available to help. Presently, they’re focused on Covid-19 prevention and mitigation efforts.  “Every day we have different concerns and hurdles,” Reynaga said. 

Reynaga’s personal connection to migrant workers aids him in his daily work. “I grew up doing seasonal migrant work. That’s my family story. Up until I was 15 years old, I was spending my summers working in the field.”

His parents migrated from Mexico and worked in agriculture. He graduated from Chadron State College in 2014 with a Legal Studies major and recently served as Chair of the Nebraska Latino American Commission.

Helping migrant workers understand they are part of the community

Reynaga partners with Paralegal and Outreach Coordinator Janellys Santa. “Our program truly caters to the migrant workers. The good thing is we’re building this relationship with them. We’re trying to give them our hands, our ears, our time. So they understand, they are indeed supported here,” Santa said.

“I help people that are dealing with unfair situations. They come to this country thinking they don’t have any rights because they are not from here, right? So why would the government care for them?”

Kristina Marshall, a law student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln spent her summer working as a law clerk with the program through the Nebraska Public Interest Law Fund.

“My biggest takeaway is that you’re dealing with groups of people who don’t necessarily know their rights or don’t know that they have a legal issue,” Marshall said.

“We want to help people find out if they are getting paid to do the work they signed up for and if they are receiving their payments on time. We want to find out if they are experiencing discrimination or harassment.”

She says they’ve set up meetings with community partners with the goal of gaining trust in the community. “We want them to know ‘these are your rights,’ here is our phone number and please call us anytime

“Our program truly caters to the migrant workers. The good thing is we’re building this relationship with them. We’re trying to give them our hands, our ears, our time. So they understand, they are indeed supported here.”

Marshall has immersed herself in reading the client open case files during her time at Legal Aid to better understand her field of study. A few of the cases involving discrimination have been directed to the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission, she says.

 

The team makes connections by sharing a common language

Santa said the migrant workers come to Nebraska with the idea that they’re going to make money to send home. “They go through a lot of hardship. They are abused. They are trafficked and they feel like they don’t have a voice. They don’t have the resources.”

Santa, who was born in Puerto Rico, finds it easy to build relationships with agricultural workers because of her Hispanic background and she speaks a common language.

“People are dealing with culture shock and the language barrier. For me, helping people achieve mental peace, or feel like they have succeeded while they’re still not necessarily succeeding, it’s important. I seek that feeling because it fulfills me.”

The team has a long-term goal of improving their relationship with employers, farm owners and meatpacking plants. “We want to make sure that both ends understand our responsibility,” Santa says.

“Migrant workers go through a lot of hardship. They are abused. They are trafficked and they feel like they don’t have a voice. They don’t have the resources.”

Recently, the Ag Rights Workers Program presented to 80 migrant workers on topics like heatstroke and sunburn safety in partnership with Proteus and Migrant Education. “We also had a mobile clinic come out and vaccinate everyone who was not vaccinated for COVID-19,” Marshall says.

Marshall said they are working to improve Legal Aid’s image due to a misconception and language barrier. A study from UNO’s Office of Latino/Latin American studies at UNO found that when migrant workers hear the term “Legal Aid,” they think it means “ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement).”

“The word “legal” doesn’t mean anything. We’re not immigration. We don’t care. We love that you’re here,” Marshall said. The attendees receive a Legal Aid drawstring bag including resource materials.

“We want to help these workers. We like to provide them with a positive memory of us providing them with services and now they know, if they need something, they can contact us.”

Need additional information? 

Jen Litton, Development Coordinator at Legal Aid of Nebraska, is the author of this article

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