California to offer free legal aid to undocumented farm workers

SACRAMENTO – California farm workers in state labor investigations will soon be able to access free legal services to safely report bad-acting employers, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Wednesday.

In efforts to prevent labor exploitation, a new $4.5 million pilot program will ensure farmworkers can fend for their rights despite their immigration status with free case review services, legal advice and attorney representation.

An estimated 50 percent of California’s farm workers are undocumented, which leaves the workforce vulnerable to bad acting employers and disproportionately unlikely to report labor claims, said Newsom’s office.

Newsom said that the program will provide more tools for farmworkers, so they no longer have to worry about the fear of deportation or the difficulty of finding work without work authorization during cases of exploitation.

“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,” said Newsom in a statement. “In the absence of Congress modernizing our broken, outdated immigration system, California continues our efforts to support immigrant families.”

Since 2015, California has funded free legal immigration services through nonprofit partnerships. The California Labor & Workforce Development and the California Department of Social Services, which will oversee the pilot, will utilize existing resources to launch the program later this year.

To be eligible, farmworkers must be involved in cases under review by the Department of Industrial Relations’ Labor Commissioner’s Office, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health or the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Services will be available based on capacity and population estimates.

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

The announcement came on the heels of the Biden Administration’s recent policy change that streamlines deferred action for undocumented people who are victims or witnesses of labor rights violations.

“Prosecutorial discretion ensures that farmworkers will be empowered to enforce their labor rights and stand up against the abuse and exploitation they often face,” said Diana Tellefson Torres, Chief Executive Officer of the UFW Foundation.

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