CAROLINE COUNTY, MARYLAND —
At 1.57 meters tall, Nora Rivero has to crane her neck to drive the Silver Dodge Charger she sometimes rents for work. Her petite stature doesn’t quite speak to her 19 years as a legal aid activist, much of it in defense of migrant farm workers.
The Colombian native is an attorney’s assistant with Maryland Legal Aid
in Baltimore. She and her senior colleague, attorney Nathanial Norton, visit migrant crop pickers housed in farm labor camps and educate them about their rights.
“When I go to see them and they have been eight or nine hours in that terrible sun and the living conditions they have to go through, that is hard for me,” she said.
Rivero and Norton often drive through Maryland’s picturesque Caroline County, home to independent growers who plant corn, soybean and cantaloupe. But getting onto the farms isn’t always easy.
Norton and Rivero say farm owners systematically intimidate them from doing their outreach to migrant workers. One farmer brandished a baseball bat at Rivero, they say, adding that another grower and his son threatened to shoot Norton.
“[They] got out of their trucks and came up to the window started yelling very angry,” Norton said. “One of the things the grower was yelling was, ‘You could be thieves. I’ve got the right to shoot people on my property.'”
Across the United States, outreach workers who deal with migrant farmworkers have similar stories of intimidation by growers. They say it’s designed to keep activists away from the poor farmworkers the activists hope to help.
A nurse practitioner in Maryland is among the outreach workers struggling with the problem. She provides health care to migrant farmworkers out of a makeshift clinic she sets up “beneath the trees” of the labor camps.
The nurse, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her work and her patients, said she routinely is intimidated to get off farm property by growers.
“I’ve been threatened with the Sheriff. They said they’d bring their gun out - their shotgun - if I entered their land without notifying them first,” she said.
Activists who assist migrant farmworkers say growers don’t want them on their land because they don’t want their crop pickers to know if their statutory rights have been violated.
Among the rights most at risk, for example, are written notice of the amount of work promised when workers are recruited from out of state, housing conditions that meet minimum legal requirements and payment for overtime.
If the workers understood their rights better, activists say, they might demand higher pay, better working conditions or access to healthcare, all of which would cost the growers money.
But migrant rights activists say it’s illegal to keep them off farm property.
“Farm workers are essentially like tenants, even in grower-controlled property,” said Norton, “so they have the right to receive visitors, particularly legal services, clergy and healthcare providers and the like.”
The activists say it’s not just happening to immigrant workers, but to American citizens as well.
Earlier this year, Norton and Rivero drove to a Preston farm where a migrant worker, a 54-year-old African-American woman from Florida, had died.
“They went and did an MRI and the MRI showed she had a massive stroke,” said Anthony DeMae, the dead woman’s nephew. Her family wanted help from Maryland Legal aid to send her body back to Florida.
Defending workers' rights
But shortly after Norton and Rivero arrived at the farm with a reporter, the owner told his foreman the aid workers and the reporter had to leave. The outreach community complains this denial of access extends to public spaces, as well. In August, a worker’s rights group based in Baltimore complained that one of its advocates was “blocked” from attending a public event about employee and employer rights.
Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM) said in a news release that it had been invited to the event by a co-sponsor - the government of Mexico. But CDM said a representative from another co-sponsor, the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, told the CDM advocate “she was not allowed to attend the event and directed her not to speak to any of the workers.”
CDM called the episode “another example of the way that [agricultural] employers try to isolate workers” and to “limit workers’ contact to other community members and their advocates.”
Few states have laws that mandate access to labor camps, but a few state Attorneys General have issued legal opinions which provide some guidance when balancing the various interests of the migrants, visitors and farmers.
The owners of the Maryland farms that VOA visited with Norton and Rivero did not return repeated phone calls for comment.
A spokesperson for the Maryland Farm Bureau said the industry in no way condones violations of workers’ rights and that activists have exaggerated the issue.
Paul Schlegel, who directs public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said aid workers demand “unfettered” access to farm property and burden growers with nuisance lawsuits.
“My hunch is that you’re seeing people with a particular perspective in the legal aid community painting with a very broad brush and making allegations that in our experience just don’t represent the real world,” said Schlegel.
Petitioning the UN
But the situation is serious enough that a coalition of 28 rights groups, including Maryland Legal Aid, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the labor union AFL-CIO, submitted a complaint to the United Nations
on December 13. The coalition argued that the lack of meaningful access to migrant labor camps “stymies” farmworkers’ access to justice and, as a result, “violates international human rights law.”
It has called on the U.N. Envoy for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda, to pressure the U.S. government to allow aid workers better access to migrant farm camps.
For now, Norton, Rivero and other social service providers feel as if the people they want to assist remain out of reach.
The nurse practitioner in Maryland said she has to “sneak around” to hand out crucial medicines to patients. “I would like for us to be able to go there when there is a need and not have to continuously notify someone, or try to intercept the people at the local Laundromat to give them blood work results, or pass over medicines instead of being able to go to their homes,” she said.