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Migrant, Farmworker, Human Rights, Access to Justice


It is estimated that there are more than 86 million migrant workers worldwide, the vast majority of whom suffer poor living and working conditions. In the United States, more than 3 million migrant farmworkers, including at least 100,000 children, are estimated to labor in fields every year, many of whom lack access to justice, earn sub-living wages, and exist in dehumanizing circumstances. Farmworkers are among the most exploited and vulnerable populations in the United States; yet, distressingly, they are also the least protected by U.S. law and law enforcement.

Legal aid advocates in the United States attempt to raise awareness and educate this starkly poor, mobile, and isolated population about the legal protections and remedies available to them, only to have employers either outright deny access or prevent meaningful communication with farmworkers in the migrant labor camps where migrants and their families often reside during the course of their employment. One nonprofit law firm that provides such services, Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, spearheaded the submission of a joint legal aid complaint on the issue to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. The advocates, who reach out to and represent migrant farmworkers, argue that the lack of federal law mandating access to migrant labor camps, combined with discriminatory treatment of migrant farmworkers under U.S. labor laws and lackluster enforcement of those laws that would apply, violates a panoply of farmworkers’ human rights, including their right to access justice.

The complaint, which is the basis for this Article, is notable because it is the first-ever joint effort among U.S. legal aid organizations to utilize the Special Procedures provided through the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights to shine an international spotlight on an entrenched local issue. It comes on the heels of a new partnership between Maryland Legal Aid, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, and the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at the Washington College of Law (the “Center”) at American University. One of the the Center’s programs, the Local Human Rights Lawyering Project, aims to normalize human rights at the state and local level and help legal aid lawyers integrate human rights into their daily work. Such partnerships are part of a larger push among social justice advocates in the United States to galvanize a domestic human rights movement so as to bring human rights home, rather than only applying them oversees, as has thus far been more common.

As described more fully below, the joint legal aid complaint submitted to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights argues that the denial of access to migrant labor camps ostensibly equals an inability for the farmworkers to access justice, as well as other human rights, especially the right to health and the right to family and community. The complaint argues that the United States, as a State Party to various human rights treaties, is required to protect, respect, and fulfill the human rights of all people, including migrants. By refusing to uphold the right to access to justice for farmworkers in the United States, the U.S. government, as well as state and local governments, violate human rights law, thereby allowing millions of farmworkers to continuously suffer inhumane conditions and assaults on human dignity.