Villanova Law's Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic provides assistance for Chester County families
● By Richard Gaw
On the evening of Nov. 5, Isabel Naveira and Peyton Carper, two third-year students at the Charles Widger School of Law at Villanova University, gave a presentation titled “Immigration 101,” before about 100 guests at the Garage Community & Youth Center in Kennett Square.
The substance of their hour-long talk attempted to turn public perception on its head, and wrestle the power of stereotypes and the danger that comes from a lack of facts, to the ground. Using statistics and data that flashed large on an overhead screen, Naveira and Carper dispelled the theory that it's easy for an immigrant to enter the U.S. legally. They debunked the belief that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs away from native-born U.S. citizens.
They corrected the inaccuracies in the belief that refugees do not have to undergo screening before entering the country.
Referring to studies, they shot down the perception that undocumented immigrants are a breeding ground for violent criminals.
Finally, they proved that undocumented immigrants, in fact, do pay taxes.
Their presentation at the Garage served as an eye-opening revelation of truths, at a time when Chester County has become one of the nation's epicenters on the issue of whether or not undocumented immigrants deserve the opportunity to work toward U.S. citizenship, or whether they should be deported from the country.
It's a volatile conversation, where those on either side have dug their heels in the ground, and one that's been elevated to near the top of the food chain of national argument through the actions of deportation efforts, stricter immigration laws, deportation raids, racial profiling, and the reverberating and harsh ant-immigration sentiment expressed by some of the nation's highest-elected officials.
Closer to home, it is not without irony that the population being heard least in this country is the same one that's been placed under the microscope of broad opinion: Latino farmworkers who work in the agricultural industry throughout Chester County, and their families. For the past several years, however, one agency has joined with other law firms specializing in immigration issues to become a strong legal voice for that community, and in some cases, a lifeline of hope.
Naveira and Carper are members of Villanova Law’s Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic (FLAC), that provides legal representation to agricultural families in employment, immigration and child protection cases. During their eight-month clinical work period, FLAC students make several visits to agriculture-rich counties in southeastern Pennsylvania – including Chester County – where they work in teams of two in helping their clients in workers’ compensation claims for people who need long-term care for work-based injuries, wage claims, child custody, unemployment, family representation, immigration services and deportation rights. Most student teams will work with Spanish-speaking clients through interpreters and manage non-traditional offsite client consultation settings.
“It was the first law school clinic in the country to focus specifically on representing farm workers,” said Caitlin Barry, FLAC program director. “Its founder (Beth Lyon, a law professor at Villanova) recognized that agricultural workers tend to face enormous barriers in accessing representation and being able to assert their rights, through geographic isolation, language barriers, exploitative working conditions, and simply not being able to access resources for things they're facing in their workplace.
“Being in Pennsylvania, where there is a strong agricultural industry, the law school recognized a huge need to support these workers and be able to help assert their rights.”
For Carper, who intends to enter corporate law, being a member of FLAC has allowed her to explore the law outside of the classroom, and develop real-world skills.
“It's allowed me to have me to have my first client attorney contact,” she said. “It's taught me to learn how to be patient, how to be diligent, how to advocate zealously for clients, and it's taught me to be creative – how to take arguments and frame them in a certain light.”
Soon after he took office in Jan. 2017, President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order that set forth the administration's immigration and removal policies. On Feb. 20, 2017, the Department of Homeland Security provided direction for the implementation and enforcement of these laws, which generally expanded the enforcement focus of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to remove undocumented immigrants from the U.S. The system has clearly worked; according to statistics provided by ICE, its Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) conducted 143,470 arrests and 226,119 removals in fiscal year 2017. Close to home, the Philadelphia office of ICE made more arrests of undocumented immigrants in 2017 than any of the other 23 ICE offices in the U.S.
For a percentage of Americans, these numbers are evidence that Trump's campaign pledge is working, coupled with a firm conviction that these undocumented immigrants are in the U.S. illegally, putting a heavy burden on the U.S. economy, threatening security and stealing jobs away from U.S.-born citizens.
Another set of numbers foretell another perceived need to keep immigration in check: By 2065, it is estimated that non-Hispanic whites will make up 46 percent of the nation's population, while Latinos will be 24 percent of the population.
“Some of these initiatives and barriers are rooted in prejudice for the people we work for, a belief that they don't want people from other countries in their community,” Barry said. “That's a much harder belief to tackle, and I think it's something we're trying to devote our energies to, in order to create another kind of messaging.
“It's something we're just going to have to confront, and acknowledge that it's not just about legal status. It's about some very dangerous notions about who is considered a worthy member of a community.”
For third-year law student David Secor, FLAC has also put him on the front lines of the immigration issue. On April 26, 2017, ICE officers arrived at Kaolin Mushroom Farms’ Alpine Plant in Avondale, and made 12 arrests of farm workers suspected to be in the U.S. illegally. Video caught federal law enforcement authorities in bulletproof jackets, leading workers to an unmarked white van. They were promptly taken to a federal immigration detention center in York, Pa. None of the 12 workers were among those whom ICE was looking for, nor did any of them work at the facility.
One of the men arrested in the raid was later represented by Secor. It was this raid, and several others like it in Chester County, that has petrified the local Latino community, and left a hard road to navigate for any outside resource looking to establish trust.
“In Chester County, specifically, every client we've spoken to has expressed fear in leaving their house, of driving, of being profiled by the police or pulled over and not knowing whether they would have to speak to any kind of authority,” he said. “But slowly, we get to build the connection, piece by piece, case by case, by visiting our clients at their homes, rather than ask them to travel all the way to Villanova. It enables me to know where they work and live, and go through each step of the legal process, and come up with strategies to fit their own goals and the goals they have for their families.”
Naveira said that every time she visits a client in the Latino community as a member of FLAC, she receives a gracious “Thank You” for her efforts.
“Personally, it's been great to be able to be there for them, when there is often no one else,” she said. “Being in a law school environment, sometimes it's easy to lose track of what is really important in law, which is being able to give back to those who often don't have the resources to get help anywhere else. It's been rewarding for me to be in court speaking on their behalf.”
Secor said that his work with FLAC is preparing him for a career in immigration law. Over the last several months, he's visited farmworkers and their families in Toughkenamon, West Grove, Avondale and Kennett Square.
“It's been an invaluable experience to be able to hear their stories first hand, work with them and accomplish what is frankly very difficult now,” he said. “But when you achieve something that's difficult, it becomes more rewarding and creates an even greater impact.”
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email firstname.lastname@example.org.