As a legal service provider, it has been frustrating over the years to have no one local to refer farmworkers to when they need pro bono or low-cost representation for their cases. So when I heard Beth Lyon was relocating to Ithaca last summer to spearhead Cornell’s Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic, I was grateful this gap in services in Tompkins would somewhat be closed.
I often receive phone calls from farmworkers wanting to discuss their immigration status. For the most part the calls are coming from undocumented individuals who are working on farms in rural parts of Tompkins County or neighboring counties such as Cayuga, Seneca and Yates. Even though some of the legal services we offer might be what they are looking for – help with filing for DACA, U Visas, or provisional waivers for unlawful presence – usually they’re not. More likely, they have a notice to appear in immigration court or are in some kind of removal proceedings. Unfortunately, these things are beyond the scope of the services we provide at Catholic Charities.
So it’s nice to have the Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic available when I need to make a referral; not only because it is part of our community but also because of the reputation and expertise Beth brings as the head it. The intersections between workers’ rights and farmworkers, as well as immigration law and farmworkers are very complex so Beth’s knowledge in both areas is certainly appreciated. Since I have made occasional referrals to the Farmworker Clinic, I decided to contact Beth to get updated on how their first year unfolded and what types of cases they took on.
Under Beth’s supervision, the Farmworker Clinic students accepted 4 cases this past year – 2 SIJS, 1 asylum, and 1 employment-related case. For the cases that weren’t pursued, they were able to either provide the farmworker advice and/or a referral to another program in upstate New York for assistance. Since there are far more referrals than accepted cases, Beth stated they have to be very strategic in selecting cases since the funding stream for programs that offer pro bono legal services is almost non-existent. When prioritizing cases, they first look to represent farmworkers who are undocumented and secondly they try to pursue cases that will benefit the community, such as SIJS (Special Immigrant Juvenile Status).
Since the clinic is student-centered, Beth also has to consider what works for the students who are enrolled in it. Taking them through a process where they “plan an action, do an action, and reflect on an action,” she balances factors between what best benefits the clients and also the students’ best interests. Things like driving distance, making sure there can be ample interaction between students and clients, as well as finding cases where there is a benefit that can be obtained are taken into consideration. She and the students pre-screen for asylum eligibility, VAWA, SIJS, U Visas or cancellation of removal. Beth summed up the process by saying “if there are cases in those areas, we can provide a unique service for the client.”
Not only are Beth and the students providing a unique service for their clients, they are also providing a unique service for Tompkins County and the surrounding area. Farmworkers are some of the most vulnerable members in our community due to many reasons that not only includes their precarious immigration status, but extends far beyond that. We’re fortunate to have the Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic in our neighborhood so on behalf of Catholic Charities I wanted to formally say welcome to Ithaca!
The following post was written by one of our fellow staff members, Laurie Konwinski, who coordinates the Justice and Peace Ministry Program at Catholic Charities. A fluent Haitian Kreyol speaker, Laurie has been making the trip between Ithaca and King Ferry since 1999 during the late summer/ early fall harvest season to provide interpreter services for Haitians at a farm worker health clinic.
Agriculture is New York’s biggest economic sector, and immigrant labor is essential to making agriculture work. Immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean make up the overwhelming majority of the farm workers milking cows and harvesting fruits and vegetables in our State. Every July, a group of farm workers travels from southern Florida to the rural community of King Ferry, just 20 miles north of Ithaca, to harvest sweet corn. Most of these 120 or so workers are Haitians and a few are African-American.
Like most farm workers, they face great economic uncertainty. Their work day can start around 6:00 a.m. but from day to day they don’t know when it will end. They might be done by 2:00 pm, or they might not get home until 7:00pm or later. It all depends on the weather, the crop, and the number of orders for corn that the farmer has gotten. Most of these workers are paid by “piece work”; this means that they are paid a few pennies for each crate of corn they pack (48 ears to the crate) or for each tractor full of corn they pick. Some of the jobs out in the field, such as assembling the crates, are paid minimum wage by the hour.
However, none of these workers is entitled to overtime pay, no matter how many hours past 40 they work in a week. New York labor law categorically denies farm workers the basic rights and protections enjoyed by virtually all other workers, including overtime. These farm workers also do not have the right to a guaranteed day of rest per week, disability insurance, or protections while bargaining collectively.
This situation stems back to the New Deal, when President Franklin Roosevelt negotiated with members of Congress to pass labor reform legislation. The Southern Congressmen would only agree to these reforms if two groups of workers were excluded: domestic labor and farm workers. These jobs were held overwhelmingly by African-Americans in the Jim Crow South of that era. The Southern politicians were simply unwilling to grant equal labor rights to Blacks. Similar language was adopted in State law, including the farm worker exclusion.
This ugly racist legacy continues to this day, although now it is immigrant workers who bear the brunt of these exclusions. Despite working long hours in the rain and the grueling heat doing exacting work, farm workers still do not have basic labor rights. As immigrants, most of whom live in isolated rural housing and have limited English skills, it is often difficult for them to stand up for themselves. However, despite their poverty and the difficulties they face, these workers continue to do the work that keeps farms in business. This Labor Day take some time to reflect on the people who have traveled far from their home countries to support themselves and their families (just like most of our ancestors did) and whose labor feeds us all.
With These Hands
A hand you don’t know
offers hot peppers, ripe
to your white plate,
brush your lips,
and except for the heat
you feel unchanged,
no realizing by whom
you have been touched.
by Angelia-Micaela Salerno