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Some Migrant Farmworkers to Get Free Legal Help With Immigration

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People bent over in a large field filled with rows of vegetables with a large vehicle in the background.
Farmworkers harvest curly mustard in a field on Feb. 10, 2021 in Ventura County.  (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

California will begin paying for free legal help with immigration for undocumented farmworkers who are involved in state investigations of wage theft or other labor violations, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office announced last week.

The $4.5 million pilot program will provide qualifying farmworkers with referrals for legal help with their immigration status.

Roughly half of California’s farmworker population is believed to be undocumented. Fear of deportation and difficulties finding jobs can discourage workers from filing labor complaints or serving as witnesses in cases alleging unsafe work temperatures, wage theft, or employer retaliation for unionizing, officials said.

“Farmworkers are the backbone of our economy, and we won’t stand by as bad actors use the threat of deportation as a form of exploitation,” Newsom said in a press release. “In the absence of Congress modernizing our broken, outdated immigration system, California continues our efforts to support immigrant families.”

State labor investigations into wage theft and other violations often take years to resolve, a CalMatters investigation revealed last year.

Sometimes workers give up the battle.

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Respecting immigrant rights

Farmworkers in labor investigations who qualify for the new state program will receive a direct referral to legal services organizations that already offer immigration services, such as the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County or the United Farm Workers Foundation, which spoke in support of the program.

The free legal services workers could receive include case review, legal advice and representation by an attorney, according to Newsom’s office.

“The time is now for us to ensure that immigrant labor rights are upheld and respected,” said Maria Elena De La Garza, executive director of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County. “We commend the state for supporting this pilot, which will help ensure that legal services are available and accessible through partnerships with trusted community-based organizations across California.”

State officials did not answer questions about when the program would begin this year, which community organizations it would partner with, or how many cases the pilot program is expected to process.

Funding for the pilot program will come from the $45 million the state annually allocates for immigration services from the California Department of Social Services, said Erin Hickey, spokesperson for the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency. The state is still completing contracts with selected immigration service providers, she said.

Deferred deportation

State officials said the pilot program aligns with a new Biden administration policy that makes it easier for undocumented workers who are victims of labor rights violations to request deferred action from deportation. Because the federal Department of Homeland Security can’t respond to all immigration violations, it exercises “prosecutorial discretion” to decide who to try to deport.

State officials said they won’t ask for workers’ immigration status, but noncitizens granted this deferred action may be eligible for work authorization.

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This year, California labor department officials began supporting undocumented workers’ requests for prosecutorial discretion or deferred action from federal immigration officials, including when employers threaten workers with immigration enforcement to prevent workers from cooperating with state investigators.

“The Department of Industrial Relations’ Labor Commissioner’s Office … was the first state agency to request deferred action from DHS for employees in an active investigation, and that request was successful,” Hickey said. “This is an important process for undocumented workers to be aware of.”

A point person assigned to the pilot program will help connect farmworkers with legal service providers. Other state labor agencies already have staffers working with federal immigration officials on prosecutorial discretion cases.

Assemblymember Esmerelda Soria, a Merced Democrat and new chairperson of the Assembly Agriculture Committee, said this is a welcome way to ensure farmworkers among her Central Valley constituents won’t be exploited. Although other organizations serving farmworkers provide similar types of legal aid, she said, funding rarely matches the need.

“I think that in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, California acknowledges that we have a broken system,” Soria told CalMatters. “Especially in the region that I represent, farmworkers are really the backbone of one of the largest agricultural economies in the country.”

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