03/04/2005

Project seeks to improve conditions for immigrant workers

March 4, 2005 -- Donations from generous Center supporters have helped launch a new legal project to protect the rights of immigrant workers in the Southeast, where farmworker conditions are the worst in the nation, and exploitation runs rampant.

"Our new Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) is a natural for the Center," said legal director Rhonda Brownstein. "Immigrant workers are the victims of a wide range of abusive practices and have few legal resources at their disposal."

The project will serve workers in nine Southern states, including Georgia, which has seen a 1,000 percent increase in immigrant population over the past year.

"Our main goal is to bring about systemic change for immigrant workers in Southern communities," said project director Mary Bauer. "These communities are often least prepared to cope with the influx of immigrant workers."

Bauer came to the Center from the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers. In addition to Bauer, the IJP staff includes two attorneys, two outreach paralegals and an administrative assistant. All speak fluent Spanish.

Seasonal migrant farmworkers in the South are among the poorest in the nation, earning as little as $4,000 a year. Most have no access to legal representation, in part because federally funded legal services programs are prohibited from representing undocumented immigrants.

The IJP's initial work addresses the gross exploitation of tree planters, who are hired by forestry contractors on behalf of large corporations.

Tree planters suffer major violations of federal wage and hour regulations. Rather than making the $8-9 an hour provided by law, these workers earn as little as $2 per hour and are not reimbursed for their travel and tools. They often work 60 hours a week and are constantly moved from one remote location to another.

Through persistent outreach visits in isolated rural communities, Bauer and her team have helped immigrants feel empowered to assert themselves, informing them of rights they did not know they had as workers in the United States. The next step, Bauer said, is helping them take action.

The IJP currently has three cases in the works and hopes to take on more that will have "as large an impact as possible," Bauer said.

With the help of Center supporters, the Immigrant Justice Project will press forward in its fight to protect the least among society's most vulnerable members.