Washington and Lee University School of Law

Washington and Lee University School of Law

Monday, July 06, 2009

A Third World in the First World

Kathy Pritts, a rising 2L from Oakland, MD, is interning with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), Inc., a non-profit law firm in Ohio.

My first six weeks of work with Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) have been both eye-opening and saddening. Many of Ohio’s migrant farmworkers – nearly all of whom are Hispanic – travel thousands of miles for the opportunity to perform backbreaking labor. When they finally arrive at their worksite, they often are not given the hours or wages which they were promised. Once in the fields, many crewleaders refuse to provide portable toilets or cool drinking water, resulting in many health problems for the workers. They are also at a high risk for pesticide-related illnesses and heat stroke.

The workers live in over-crowded, dilapidated housing. Bedbug infestations are common, and trash is often scattered throughout the camps. Indoor bathrooms are a luxury – rudimentary outhouses are the norm. With rising summer temperatures, these facilities become more and more noxious.

A significant barrier to our work is that, despite these labor and housing violations, many people are afraid to complain about the conditions in which they work and live. Many do not have immigration documents, and fear arrest or deportation. They are often targeted by the police, and have described many incidents of racial profiling.

Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act allows the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement, permitting these law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law. This controversial provision has been used in Butler County, Ohio, where the sheriff’s office has been given the authority to detain undocumented persons and put them into removal proceedings. This has heightened the already-existing fear present among immigrant communities, making them even less likely to complain of unfair treatment.

My most recent assignment involved co-writing a memo proposing changes to Ohio legislation regulating the housing provided to migrant farmworkers. It was somewhat unreal to suggest changes requiring what most would consider to be extremely basic sanitation and safety provisions. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, it is deeply saddening that so many people work and live in such wretched conditions, surrounded by hostility and racism within the surrounding communities.

However, it is comforting to know that there are those who have dedicated their careers to serving this often-forgotten group of people. I am humbled by the dedication of the legal advocates with whom I work, and I hope that I too will have the opportunity to use my education to give a voice to the voiceless.


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