Approximately 2.4 million farmworkers, including foreign and domestic workers, labor on our nation's farms, cultivating and harvesting crops. In Massachusetts, there are about 20,000 farmworkers, and I am the only attorney in Massachusetts who represents farmworkers across the state through the Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers Project at Central West Justice Center, a legal aid organization.
Migrant and seasonal farmworkers are people who either work seasonally on farms throughout the year or migrate from place to place following crops. Many farmworkers live below the federal poverty line, live in rural communities isolated and far from social services, and are exempt from federal and state laws that protect other low-wage workers. Specifically, farmworkers in Massachusetts are exempt from overtime laws and can earn a substandard wage of $8.00 an hour.
Community Lawyering from the Ground Up
Practicing at legal aid doing anti-poverty work is more than just legal advocacy. Community lawyering is about empowering clients and advocating for change in the inequities of the justice system. I do this by not only representing clients in legal matters but also by advocating on a state level with the legislature for systemic change and speaking up for farmworkers on an impact level.
This work requires getting into the trenches and integrating into an insular community. During peak farming season, I spend a lot of time visiting farms in rural parts of Massachusetts, and much less time in the office. Unlike traditional lawyering where a client comes to you, you must go out and meet your clients where they are. This means going out on the farms and providing information during lunch breaks, hanging out at community health centers, and going to clients’ churches and homes.
When I meet a client, I assess the case for all legal matters and provide advocacy in immigration, housing, family, education, wage, employment, and benefits matters. On any given day, if I am in the office, I am filing paperwork, advocating in court, negotiating settlements, prepping a client or a case, or doing a consultation. I also connect clients to social services providers as needed.
Anti-poverty work is emotionally taxing. You become intimately acquainted with the societal inequities that subvert your clients. It is rewarding when you gain the trust of the community; I do this by spending time with the community, building and sharing cultural competency, and connecting with clients as a Spanish-speaker. It isn’t hard for me to connect with my clients because I am not that different from them—I come from a working-class background, and at one point, I benefited from the services of a legal aid attorney myself.
On the Other Side of the Table
My desire to work in the public interest is informed by political and personal experiences. I spent the majority of my childhood without lawful status in the United States. When I was 17 years old, I became a legal permanent resident with the help of a legal-aid lawyer. I was so inspired by how the legal-aid attorney helped me that I decided I too would become a lawyer to help people. As an immigrant, I know the importance of having an advocate on your side. As a child, I never imagined that one day I would be working as an attorney in the United States, and it’s not something I take for granted.
Getting into Anti-Poverty Work
If you are dedicated to zealous advocacy and have patience and a willingness to learn, consider joining public interest advocates who give people on the margins an opportunity to be heard, to learn about the legal system, and to have a fighting chance in acquiring justice. If you are interested in this area, start networking and providing pro bono assistance with legal aid and not-for-profit organizations to get acquainted with the work and the clientele.
Next time you eat your fruits and vegetables, remember farmworkers are some of our most vulnerable and essential workers, and they deserve advocacy and recognition.