Striving for Change, UVA Law’s Migrant Farmworker Project Is Back in Action
Whether they are a three-hour trek to the Eastern Shore or a 20-minute cruise down I-64, migrant worker camps are a world away from what students at the University of Virginia School of Law typically experience when working with clients.
Molly Keck ’24, a volunteer for the Migrant Farmworker Project, has heard stories of people drinking mold-contaminated water while working in sweltering summer heat and hand-washing their clothes after working in a field for 12 hours because there are not laundry facilities on site, but the housing conditions she saw herself troubled her the most.
“That might have been the most disturbing part of what I witnessed this summer,” Keck said. “I saw housing that had holes in the walls and floors, moldy mattresses, no indoor plumbing — just absolutely abysmal conditions.”
This is the first semester the project — a partnership between the Legal Aid Justice Center and the student-run Latin American Law Organization — has operated since COVID-19 shut the world down in March 2020. Before that, the project had been operating in some form since the early 1980s.
Keck has already had a summer’s worth of experience helping migrant workers.
She interned at LAJC over the summer, where she worked closely with Workers’ Rights Attorney Marissa Baer and visited dozens of migrant worker farms across Virginia. It only took one visit for Keck to solidify her career choice. She did not want to leave.
“I knew I wanted to try to get this project started again,” Keck said.
This semester’s program will look differently than it has in the past. Instead of large groups of students going to farms, Baer will take small groups of two or three students with her during visits throughout the semester. While visiting the farms, many of which supply food and beverages to the Charlottesville area, students practice their communication skills and relationship-building, as well as their Spanish. Baer said she hopes to visit 30 farms in the region by the end of the semester.
Long pants and closed-toe shoes are students’ standard uniform for such visits. They typically walk up to the trailers, barracks or single-family homes depending on the location, and begin introducing themselves to the workers.
Baer said she lets the farm workers lead the conversation. If they are chatty, they could talk about their families, hobbies and — if they are comfortable enough — they might share issues they are experiencing on the farm. Other times, Baer just gives a quick elevator pitch on what LAJC is and an overview of worker’s rights before she hands over a QR code with the link to the LAJC website.
Baer visits farms throughout the year so that workers can get to know her better.
“The biggest part of this job is trust-building,” Baer said. “That trust is the basis of everything we do.”
For Baer, being a lawyer is her chance to help others, regardless of their circumstances. Meeting people where they are is the heart of her role at LAJC.
“It amazes me in a wonderful way to be able to see the power of human connection and being able to build bridges and build those relationships,” she said.
Most of the migrant workers Baer performs outreach to have H-2A visas, designed for temporary agricultural work. This makes it difficult for workers to file complaints or even speak with lawyers out of fear their employer may not invite them to return for another season of work.
Keck said farmworkers have told her they feel like they cannot say anything about the working conditions because they might be left without a job and no way to support their family.
That is many of these workers’ worst nightmare.
“These workers want these jobs at the end of the day, even with all the issues that they have,” Keck said.
Even with the poor working conditions, they make exponentially more than they could in their home country, which is usually Mexico, Bear said. This, coupled with the fear of losing their income by not being asked to return, makes reporting issues challenging.
Keck met one pine tree farmer who has worked as a migrant worker for more than 20 years. His wife and children are in Mexico, and he has spent more time working in Virginia than with his family.
“He’s spending most of his life away from his family doing this very difficult job so that he can send back most of that money and support his family that he hardly gets to see,” Keck explained.
Common worker violations vary from wage theft and failure to fully reimburse travel expenses to safety and health concerns. More complex issues include labor trafficking, which can take many forms, but commonly happens when an employer strips a migrant worker of their documentation, forcing them to continue to work.
Baer said not enough lawsuits are filed against the poor working conditions, so whenever someone is willing to talk, she gladly listens to their experiences.
LAJC's efforts in partnership with other community organizations have led to improved working conditions and solutions to disputes over wages in cases across Virginia. The partnership with UVA has been successful, Baer said, because it provides students a glimpse at what outreach looks like for lawyers at LAJC.
“Agriculture is a massive part of Virginia's economy, and our program has to be on the road nearly year-round; performing outreach and building trust with the workers,” Baer said. “Having students help perform that outreach not only eases the burden on our team, it also gives them the opportunity to engage in community lawyering and gets them out of the law school bubble.”
What Keck loves most about working with LAJC is the versatility that comes with it. She is constantly shifting gears from researching litigation history and workers’ rights laws to knocking on doors and talking with farmers.
As this semester’s pro bono chair for LALO and the only current UVA Law student who had stepped foot onto a farm prior to this semester, Keck has become a leader within the program. When meeting with people in this semester’s cohort, she was greeted by eager students asking what they could expect when stepping foot onto a farm.
She does her best to provide insight, she said. Though every farm is different, she always shares what surprised her most when she first began working with the farmworkers.
“What really stuck is how friendly and welcoming the workers are,” Keck said. “We often visit the workers while they are cooking dinner and they never seem annoyed that we want to talk to them after their long day in the fields. Rather, they are incredibly generous and warm, offering food to us and chatting.”
With every trip to a farm, Baer hopes that students realize that being a lawyer is much more than researching and preparing briefs; it’s about helping those who feel powerless.
“Forming those connections on a more realistic level — it’s always eye-opening,” Baer said. “Being able to connect with people who have a very different life from you is beautiful.”
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