ACLU Sues to Protect Access of Migrant Farmworkers to Legal Aid

Expedited Review Sought to Lift Unconstitutional Montgomery County Police Order

Affiliate: ACLU of Maryland
April 21, 2016 10:00 am

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TAKOMA PARK, MD — The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland today filed suit in federal district court in Greenbelt, challenging as unconstitutional a year-long “no-trespass” order issued by Montgomery County police to Maryland Legal Aid (Legal Aid) advocates who sought to visit and provide legal information to migrant farmworkers living on-site at Lewis Orchards, a farm in Montgomery County. The lawsuit, filed against Montgomery County, its Police Department, and Fruits and Vegetables by Lewis Orchard, LLC, includes a request for swift Court action to lift the no-trespass order, so that Legal Aid can immediately resume outreach to migrant workers at the farm.

“Maryland Legal Aid has every right to reach out seeking fairness for our state’s most marginalized and vulnerable workers, and Montgomery County’s use of its police power to block farmworkers’ access to justice should shame us all,” said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland.

On August 18, 2015, Legal Aid employee Nohora Rivero and a law clerk visited Lewis Orchards in Dickerson, MD, to speak with migrant workers about their rights, connect them with social services, and listen to their concerns. After work hours, Ms. Rivero spoke with workers, who had H-2A visas, at their residences on the farm. Midway through the Legal Aid visit, farm owners Robert and Linda Lewis confronted Rivero and the law clerk, threatening them with arrest if they did not leave immediately. When Rivero said the workers had a right to visit with legal counsel in their homes, the farm owners called Montgomery County police. Police issued the Legal Aid employees an order barring them from returning to the farm to visit workers for a year, on threat of arrest. When Rivero showed Kettering an Attorney General’s opinion proclaiming that Legal Aid had a constitutional right to be there, the officer brushed it aside, saying he did not have time to read it, and ordered the two to leave. As a result, Legal Aid was unable to assist workers with their employment concerns last year, and has not been able to return to Lewis Orchards since August.

“The migrant farm laborers I work with struggle with poverty, lack of education, widespread threats of arrest and deportation, and socially isolated living conditions, which make them susceptible to abuse,” said Nohora Rivero from Maryland Legal Aid, a plaintiff in the case. “I am very concerned that violations of workers’ rights are going unaddressed because of my illegal banning.”

“The state and federal governments contract with Maryland Legal Aid to help empower people marginalized by the system, like migrant farmworkers, because all of us benefit when our society acts to ensure against worker exploitation,” said Kit A. Pierson of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC. “Importantly, the Maryland Attorney General has specifically opined that Maryland Legal Aid workers and other social service providers may not be prevented from visiting migrant workers, even against the wishes of private landowners. Yet when a Maryland Legal Aid employee attempted to show a copy of that legal opinion to Montgomery County police last summer, the officer refused to read it.”

The plaintiffs are represented by pro bono attorneys Kit A. Pierson and Robert W. Cobbs of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC in Washington, DC, and ACLU of Maryland Legal Director Deborah Jeon, Senior Staff Attorney David Rocah, and Staff Attorney Sonia Kumar.

Go to the ACLU of Maryland website to download the complaint and learn more:

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