Migrant Legal Aid dedicated to fairness, dignity

 By Cynthia Price

Legal News
 
A simple walk through the offices of Michigan Migrant Legal Aid on Fuller Avenue makes clear the agency’s culture of treating migrant clients with dignity.
Beautiful photographs of farm fields and workers line the walls throughout, and the soothing color scheme and comfortable chairs in the lobby are augmented by a small, neat play area for children.
But it is in talking with Executive Director Teresa Hendricks that the truly comprehensive respect for — and willingness to struggle for the rights of — these often-neglected, often-abused people shines through.
“Every year we do legal and social triage for the families, starting when they come here at the beginning of the season,” she explains. “They’ve just had a long journey that may have taken all their resources; sometimes they have a job lined up and sometimes they don’t. We make sure they have work, housing, transportation to and from camp.
“We also have set up a network so stakeholders all know what the others do — we have a flow chart, and we make sure that the migrants don’t get a constant hand-off but more of a warm personal referral.” 
Even more, Hendricks’ compassion and caring for Migrant Legal Aid’s clients is evident in her attitude about those who exploit or abuse the workers, which can sometimes include the crew leaders who recruit workers for jobs.
“They can be unscrupulous. We have a list,” she says wryly.
While there are some farm owners who deliberately take advantage of and mistreat the workers, and others more well-meaning who are challenged to do everything they should, there are also farmers whose treatment is exemplary.
To honor those farmers, Migrant Legal Aid annually gives out its Good Grower Award. The three farms that have won since its inception are Wayne Kiel of Blueberry Heritage Farms, Wenke Greenhouses/Farms, and Rob Steffens of Steffens Orchard and Market. This year’s winner will be announced at the organization’s annual Harvest Justice event, an hour-long luncheon held at Versluis Orchards, on Sept. 17.
Such fund-raisers help to keep the lights on, but Hendricks peppers her talk about the agency with acknowledgments of other contributions: the State Bar Foundation, the Sebastian Foundation, others who fund individual programs.
Migrant Legal Aid and Farmworker Legal Services, headed up by Thomas Thornburg (profiled in the Grand Rapids Legal News for  9/28/12) used to be one organization decades ago, but during the Reagan Administration legislators limited what the federal funds could cover and the two split. “We were left to fend for ourselves, which is actually ideal because you’re not restricted when you represent people. But we co-counsel cases and work very closely with them,” Hendricks says.
Another way Migrant Legal Aid continues its work is through bringing in a number of student interns and summer legal assistants each year. This works well because that help is most available during the summer, and it is in the summer that the agency must work most intensively, contacting the migrant workers, first following up on conditions and treatment and potential complaints and then doing the legal and negotiation work to resolve the problems they find.
“When we do our mid-season interview, usually they’re reluctant to complain, but by the end of the year, we have a lot to follow up on — mostly in the area of payment and wages.”
The “pillars” of Michigan Migrant Legal Aid’s concerns are income, education, civil rights, and health. Last year the office opened up 788 cases and closed 684.
Hendricks herself started out at Migrant Legal Aid as an intern, when she was pursuing her law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She graduated With Distinction from Purdue University with a dual major in Spanish and English.
She credits her junior year abroad in Spain with giving her insight into the migrants’ situations. Having always had a passion for Spanish, she studied at the University of Madrid. “I have a lot of empathy for how hard it is to have your language not be the one spoken by everyone else around you,  how easy it is to be confused or misunderstood,” she says.
Though her particular interest naturally “came from my desire to do social justice law and my ability to speak Spanish,” Hendricks says she was not able to throw herself into the migrant legal work until her loans were paid off. She volunteered attorney services on and off, but did not become executive director until 1997.
And she still has a private practice, as half of Hendricks and Watkins, PLC, which specializes in drunk driving, criminal defense, personal injury, immigration, and bankruptcy. She devotes 100% of her time there to litigation.
She is a member of Scribes, the American Society of Writers on Legal Issues, is a member of the American Trial Lawyers Association and and the Women Trial Lawyers Association; serves on a number of committees related to migrant issues and farming; and acts as an advocate on breast cancer and other women’s health issues. She has published widely and taught law as an adjunct.
When asked whether she feels that running the agency and standing up for the migrant workers sometimes feels like a crushing amount of responsibility, Hendricks replies, “Well, no more responsibility than the average woman in a migrant family. She wakes up at 3 in the morning, gets the whole family’s meals ready, wakes them up, works as many as 15 hours a day in the fields, and then when she gets back home she still has to do laundry, and cleaning... I feel like all of these migrants have the hardest lives, and they earn so little for it.”
Or, as Cesar Chavez put it in a quote memorialized on Michigan Migrant Legal Aid’s website, “It’s ironic that those who till the soil, cultivate and harvest the fruits, vegetables, and other foods that fill your tables with abundance have nothing left for themselves.”  
 

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