A ‘Lawyers Caravan’ Brings Legal Services to Upstate Immigrants
Sitting on the side of a country road, waiting for a young Guatemalan woman to emerge from a small clapboard house so that I could drive her to a local church, was not what I envisioned doing as a lawyer all those years ago in law school.
Yet last May there I was, deep in New York’s North Country, doing just that. Behind the small house, which was so close to the road it didn’t have room for a driveway, I could see cows lined up in their enclosures waiting to be milked. A few more houses and signs of farm life – tractors, barns, equipment – were grouped nearby. Fields stretched out all around me, with trees breaking up the landscape here and there. The only sound was the faint rustling of the animals, but even they were mostly silent. After days of rain, the ground was soaked through and the smell of wet grass was faint on the cooler-than-expected air.
The young woman I was waiting for came down the steps, not exactly confident, but not shy either. She hesitated for a second before I waved her into the passenger seat. I secretly wondered at the trust she had in me, a total stranger, as she buckled herself in. We chit-chatted while I drove around the outskirts of Watertown, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border, home to the U.S. Army’s Fort Drum and known for its heavy law enforcement presence — including the U.S. Border Patrol.
I made sure to go exactly the speed limit so as to not risk getting pulled over and asked about my passenger. As I drove, she told me about her life in Guatemala and her decision to come join her brother here in upstate New York. The farmer and his wife were nice, she told me. When her lungs filled with fluid a year ago and she was forced to have open-heart surgery and go on a life-long regimen of dialysis, they let her continue living at the farm even though she could no longer work with the cows.
She did odd jobs and kept the house clean for her brother and their co-workers, but she needed to stay away from the dust and the hay. And she couldn’t do too much strenuous activity either. She paid about a day’s worth of wages for a ride to the doctor for her treatments, and she was unsure, when we got to our destination, if she should pay me too. She was 24.
When we arrived at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, a lively group waited for us inside. Seated on couches in the main lobby, workers from various farms caught-up with each other and with the organizers from the Workers Center for Central New York, who had helped us organize the event. Children ran around the hallways and grouped together in the church’s playroom, shouting and laughing in an odd mix of Spanish and English.
In various offices throughout the church, lawyers who had come in that day from New York City met with the workers one-on-one. A colleague and I led a Know Your Rights presentation for those who waited, holding up poster-sized versions of different kinds of warrants mounted on foam board for all to see.
Later, when the lawyers grouped around a diner table for the first of our nightly debriefs, I felt like the fluorescent lighting’s unforgiving glare brought out into the open every feeling of exhaustion and sadness I had.
The idea for a caravan of lawyers traveling to New York’s hardest to reach immigrant communities had come to me in a random flash of inspiration the previous fall. It was one of those moments where you trail off mid-sentence as you’re chatting with a friend, because you just had an idea that needs to be seized before it fades away. We were in the midst of a conversation about the media coverage of the so-called migrant caravan, which at the time was making its way north through Mexico to the dismay of our elected leaders and with great fanfare by the press, but my mind was on a recent meetings I had had with remote communities in upstate New York. Somehow, the two ideas merged, and the lawyer caravan began to take shape in my head.
A few text messages and a few accidental meetings later, a team had been formed. By the time I left New York City on Mother’s Day for the first leg of the trip north we had turned away many who wanted to join, while a motley crew of big-firm lawyers, non-profit attorneys, and rural community organizers banded together on our first lawyer caravan.
ORGANIZING THE CARAVAN PROJECT
To get the project going, I teamed up with Fabiola Ortiz, a lifelong labor organizer now based out of Syracuse and my colleague at the New York Immigration Coalition. With the support of the New York State Bar Association, Fabiola and I worked to bring together a group of about 10 lawyers and a couple of community advocates on a week-long trip during which we would meet with immigrant farmworkers upstate. Our trip would loosely follow the U.S.-Canadian border starting in the area north of the Adirondacks and making our way west nearly to Rochester.
We chose to focus on dairy farms because, unlike their fruit farm counterparts, the work there is year-round, and farmers cannot rely on temporary work-visa programs to bring in necessary labor. New York’s dairies, a powerful economic sector for the state, are mainly staffed by unauthorized immigrants who typically work 12-to-14-hour shifts, six days a week, milking thousands of cows three times a day at least. We did Know Your Rights presentations for these workers, interviewed them to capture their personal stories, and for those who wanted it, provided one-on-one legal consultations and, if possible, referrals to local attorneys.
Our biggest goals were to better understand the needs of these communities, particularly their legal needs, and to strengthen and support local legal capacity. For years, I have been working on researching and documenting access to counsel and access to justice issues for immigrant New Yorkers by examining the obstacles communities face in accessing immigration legal help as well as the challenges lawyers encounter in providing immigration legal services.
Being based in New York City and having practiced there. I was well aware of the resources available downstate as well as the continuing gaps. Working for an organization that served the entire state, I had often heard about New York’s upstate-downstate imbalance, but in my mind it remained an academic concept at best.
Since early 2017, using the momentum from the legal efforts at JFK Airport in the wake of the travel ban, legal service providers had been formalizing their relationships through a statewide collaborative we named the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative (I-ARC). I was very involved in the organizing of the attorneys at the airport and used that knowledge and the lessons learned to help launch I-ARC.
In late 2018, I set a goal for myself to “network the state” with respect to immigration legal services. Early in 2019, the I-ARC Steering Committee decided to make networking the state one of its goals for the year, and as part of that effort I ramped up the work of I-ARC’s upstate working group. As we worked to plan the trip, these goals were front and center on my mind. Fabiola and I wanted to bring New York City lawyers to these regions so that they – and I – could see for themselves the challenges in those parts of the state. But we also wanted to work with the local groups to find ways to support and increase their capacity to meet the needs of their communities.
So there we were in Watertown on a rainy Monday, where we set up our operations at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist church. Joining Fabiola and me were Kyle, Eduardo, Saralyn, and Julissa from New York City law firms, Lorilei from a NYC non-profit, community advocates Rebecca, Crispin, and Joel from Central New York, and local advocate Rebecca who was in the midst of building ally networks for immigrant communities in North Country.
Over the next week we visited farms in Jefferson, Cortland, Madison, Onondaga, and Wayne counties and were joined by Carmen, from New York City, and local attorneys Beth, Jakki, and Sara. After that first day, we were a team of all women attorneys for the rest of the week. On the last day, Fabiola, Sara and I met at the home of a farmer, who had invited others from the community. There, I did the Know Your Rights session for workers and employers, and answered questions from them about how to keep their employees safe.
We drove nearly 2,000 miles over five days, doing an impromptu tour of some of New York’s prettiest regions and towns: The Finger Lakes, the Adirondacks, Skaneateles to name just a few. On my own one day, driving back to meet the group from an unrelated meeting in Rochester, I stopped by Seneca Falls for lunch. I had wanted to take a photo of the Women’s Rights National Monument for my daughter but also stumbled upon the “It’s a Wonderful Life” museum. Seneca Falls, as it turned out, is the real-life Bedford Falls. I remembered watching the movie for the first time with my father, when he used it to explain to me that one person can make a difference in the world. It seemed fitting.
The next day, our group unexpectedly had to split up. While one team stayed behind, Fabiola, Lorilei, Carmen and I, along with advocates Crispin and Joel, drove west to Wayne County. We stopped in Skaneateles for a photo opportunity along the way and went to Sodus Point for lunch, walking out to the lighthouse and waving to Canada from across the lake.
We spoke only in Spanish for Crispin and Joel’s benefit. It was the first time I experienced the obvious reaction of those around us, who either did not expect or did not approve of us not speaking English. Despite those moments of uneasiness, I remember sitting around a picnic table eating ice creams together that day, joking about our experiences on the trip, and thinking I had the best job in the world.
IMMIGRANT ISOLATION AND INVISIBILITY
Dairy farms, which we specifically targeted on this trip, are a powerful economic engine for New York State. Driven most recently by its booming yogurt industry, New York continues to be a top-producing dairy state. Only California, Wisconsin and Idaho produce more milk annually. New York’s dairy farms range in sizes and workforce, but most of the ones we visited had fewer than 10 immigrant workers, and a few thousand cows each. Only in Watertown did we meet workers from significantly larger farms. In addition to the immigrant workers, Americans also work on the farms, usually in the supervisory capacities with shorter hours and better pay and benefits.
Necessarily, the farms are set far apart from each other and from the centers of towns. Each includes several buildings, including barns, milk storing facilities, and the milking parlors themselves, which are essentially large pens with roofs where cows line up, held in place by large iron loops that hang around their necks. The farmworker housing is usually very close to the cows, either next to the pens or across the street. At one farm that we visited, the worker housing had burned down a few years prior in a fire started in hay bales that were stacked right outside the house’s windows.
The farmworker housing we visited was generally rundown and badly in need of repairs. The buildings were drafty and cold, unwelcoming on the rainy days we were there. In the one newer structure, rebuilt after a fire, the rooms were barely big enough for one person, yet most were meant for two.
The housing was for the most part devoid of any personal touches or any small improvements that would have made them feel more like homes. Instead, sadness and exhaustion were palpable from the minute we walked in. Most had televisions, but no other obvious means of recreation. Of course, working 12-or- more-hour shifts six days a week, it was unlikely that the workers had much time for anything else.
Nonetheless, there were some reminders of workers’ homelands. One home had an altar to the Virgin Guadalupe. On it, the men had placed a jar where, at the end of the month, each put in whatever money they could afford. At the end of the year, the contents of the jar were sent to a church in their native village in Guatemala ahead of Christmas. Next to the altar, they had hung the Guatemalan flag on the wall. Every home we went into also had a tortilla press and boxes of masa harina in the kitchen, clearly sent from family back home so that they could make the food they knew.
The neighboring towns stood in stark contrast. Whereas the farms were clearly populated by Central American migrants, the towns we drove through seemed uniformly white. Fabiola had warned me about this and explained to me that the immigrant workers often felt uncomfortable going into town centers because the color of their skin would make them stick out.
What surprised me, though, was the complete lack of evidence that immigrant communities live so close by. We didn’t drive by so much as a Mexican restaurant, or a business with a Spanish language sign. The immigrants, so crucial to the region’s economic well-being, were invisible in the towns where they lived.
The racism they faced when they left the farms was, of course, only one reason why the workers did not often come into town. Geographical distances also enforce the isolation. The country roads are not easily walkable, and the vast fields between different farms make it hard for someone to simply go see a neighbor at the end of a long workday.
At the time, undocumented immigrants could not obtain drivers licenses in New York (The law that will allow them to do so is set to go into effect on December 14). Without this critical document, they are forced to either risk driving without a license – which in the event they are pulled over for even a minor infraction, or simply because of racial profiling, would surely lead to a call to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – or paying often up to a day’s wages for a ride into town. The fear of encountering law enforcement coupled with the high cost means most workers remain on the farms unless they have a critical need to go somewhere, such as a medical appointment or a grocery run.
But perhaps the greatest isolator of all is the workers’ immigration status, or, rather, lack thereof. Nearly all of the workers that we met were out of status. Some, mainly the younger ones who were more recently arrived, had been arrested at the border. Others had been arrested in some unlucky encounter with immigration enforcement in the interior. In either case, they were either going through deportation proceedings, or had deportation orders but risked staying in the United States anyway, trying to work here for as long as possible before being forced to go home. Many others are simply here without status and were hoping to lay low and not come to the attention of immigration authorities.
ACCESS TO JUSTICE – OR LACK THEREOF
In these circumstances, our presence seemed to be somewhat of a surprise to the workers we visited. Most of those we interviewed, approximately 40 individuals in total, told us they did not know who they would ask if they needed to speak to a lawyer. A handful, those who were connected to the broader organizing efforts of local advocates, told us they would go through those community groups. The ones who had already faced a need for a lawyer, generally because they were facing deportation, had met them in ad hoc ways — by word of mouth, or in the immigration court waiting room. The geographic distances also provided a formidable barrier. For those who were represented, none of the lawyers were local and many were several hours’ drive away.
In addition to the lack of local services and the distances involved, language was another obstacle. None of the workers we met spoke English, and most of the attorneys did not appear to speak Spanish. The long work hours and limited availability of classes meant that many could not connect to English language instruction. The farmers often did not speak Spanish either, and relied on the one worker with the best command of English, minimal though it might be, to communicate with the others.
The biggest surprise, to me at least, however, was the lack of trust the workers showed toward us. Looking back, I realize that this was probably part of my big-city arrogance. Or maybe, as a lawyer, I’m used to feeling that I have all the answers and that others must recognize that too. But in this part of the state where obtaining even basic necessities is such a complex struggle, it was clear that our presence was widely met with skepticism.
In many instances, it became obvious that there were many more community members who could have come out but didn’t, perhaps out of fear or out of distrust. Coming from a city where lawyers feel inundated with communities’ needs for legal representation, it was the first time I began to understand the complexities of working with rural, isolated communities.
THE “NEW” PRACTICE OF LAW
We all come to this work for different reasons. As the daughter of two journalists, I grew up traveling around the world. Through my parents I met countless people who had suffered because their fundamental rights had been violated by their governments and heard the stories of many more. I saw the United States through their eyes – as the shining city on the hill, the champion defender of everyone’s human rights. I carried my American citizenship like a badge of honor.
My father was proud of his American Jewish heritage and often spoke of his childhood growing up in a poor Russian Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Our family had been refugees, fleeing to escape the pogroms in Russia and Moldova. My grandmother arrived as a tiny one-year-old baby, and I often pictured her in her parents’ arms, looking up at the Statue of Liberty as they sailed by on their way to Ellis Island.
As a child, I spent my summers in France, listening to my mother’s parents tell stories of living in Nazi-occupied Paris. They told me over and over that my generation could never understand what it was like to exist under such a regime. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, when I felt scared of the world that was changing around me, my grandfather called me to say that what he had meant was that he hoped we would never have to understand.
I am proud of all that I have achieved over the last two-and-a-half years, and I recognize that this personal history has carried me through it all. I don’t think I ever asked myself what I would do if I had found myself living in those same circumstances, but now I know — I show up. This is my personal story, but it is part of a much larger narrative.
I was one of the first to arrive at JFK airport the morning the travel ban went into effect in January 2017. I helped launch the protest and then I stayed for nine more days to help organize the legal efforts on the ground. Eighteen months later, in July 2018, I was one of the first to arrive at the Albany County Jail, where the ICE had transferred 300 asylum seekers from the southern border in the dead of night, at the height of the family separation crisis.
In between those headline making moments, there have been countless more efforts, moments of joy and celebration, and times of profound sadness. I’ve worked to create strong networks between immigration lawyers so that they won’t feel alone when confronted with unspeakable cruelty. I’ve stood on our northern border, watching people beg Canada to admit them because they were too afraid to remain in the United States. I’ve celebrated each hard-fought court win, from overturning a hateful policy to keeping one man in the country longer with his family.
I am proud to be part of a profession that, when we were pushed to the brink, stood up and said, “not one more.” I am constantly amazed by the lawyers I work with every day, who are re-writing the rules of how we practice law and laying it all on the line for every single client. From the hours of research and writing and learning they put into every case, to the teaching and mentoring they offer each other to strengthen the immigration bar as a whole, lawyers have responded to every shift in policy, every new attack on our communities, no matter how dizzyingly fast things come at us.
And we are still responding: As I write these words, lawyers are exposing the atrocities migrant children are suffering in processing facilities at the U.S.-Mexico border, a sad reminder of last summer, when lawyers frantically worked to reunify parents and children separated by our cruel immigration policies.
I’m proud of our lawyer caravan along our other, quieter border, and grateful that our work reminded me not just of all that remains to be done, but also of why we do it in the first place.