Migrant worker conference presenters emphasize link between law, healthcare

By Jeanine Matlow
Legal News
The connection between legal services and healthcare in the world of migrant farmworkers may be counterintuitive, but a closer look at the laws governing treatment of farmworkers indicates that many are directly related to preventing factors which contribute to ill health.

Or, as stated in a handout on the National Center for Medical Legal Partnership distributed by Farmworker Legal Services at last week’s Midwest Stream Forum in Grand Rapids, “Aims [of Medical-Legal Partnerships] include improved health and well-being.”

Migrant farmworkers’ health reflects much of the worst of the worst, even including farmers preventing them from getting health care at all. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission noted in its 2010 “Report on the Conditions of Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers” that a substantial percent of the complaints they heard in public hearings around the state involved health issues.

The average farmworker’s life expectancy is 49, at a time when national averages are at about 78.

The Midwest Stream Forum, held Sept. 18-20 at the Amway Grand, is a conference of the National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH). With a mission to “improve the health status of farmworker families through the provision of innovative training, technical assistance, and information services to Migrant and Community Health Centers,” the NCFH sponsors three yearly conferences held in “loosely-defined migratory streams.” The events attract advocates, health and social service providers, and policy makers. The Grand Rapids conference was the first of the 2017-2018 season, with one in Atlanta and one in Seattle to come.

In and around Kent County, Cherry Health oversees several migrant health clinics, but there are others in West Michigan such as Northwest Michigan Health Services, Inc., of Traverse City, which covers Oceana and other counties. The “federally-qualified” centers were originated by the 1962 Migrant Health Act.

There is both state and federal regulation on the treatment of migrant farmworkers. Housing, for example, is governed in Michigan by Public Act 368 of 1978, which requires annual inspection and licensing of labor camps, whereas the U.S. Public Health Code governs in other areas.

Research into the social determinants of health indicate strong correlation between complaints and violations the legal system might cover and the prevalence of health problems, especially in creating discrepancies between those who do and do not struggle economically. For example, if children live in housing that has mold, lead paint, or rodents, there will likely be repercussions on their health. The legal system can work to redress violations of housing regulations.

At the Midwest Stream Forum, Farmworker Legal Services (FLS) offered three breakout sessions  which demonstrated the need for inclusion of the protections legal aid offers in proactive care for the health of migrant farmworkers.

Presenter Kara Moberg, a managing attorney at FLS, said sessions she did on human trafficking and on holistic health care were well-attended. She also partnered with an attorney from Farmworker Justice to present on the H2A visa program, which allows temporary and seasonal agricultural workers to enter the country.

The holistic health care session, prepared by Moberg in conjunction with FLS community advocate Mariah Hennen, gave very detailed information about the relationship between social determinants of health and the work FLS or other legal aid centers do. From wage theft, which causes stress and, potentially, overwork, to pesticide exposure to sexual assault, there is a lot that the law can contribute.

About the presentations, Moberg said, “The goal was to demonstrate for health care providers how legal aid can help contribute to improved health by addressing legal needs such as inadequate housing and field sanitation.”

At the presentation’s end, Moberg listed a number of ways in which  medical professionals can help attorneys help them, including reporting the circumstances of pesticide exposure and injuries resulting from housing or field conditions.

Though she says that FLS has a very good informal network with health care providers, including mutual referral, she would be interested in seeing development of more formal Medical Legal Partnerships mentioned above.

MLPs can help with issues such as employment and education, legal immigration status, personal and family stability, and housing, all of which impact health.

The parent organization of FLS, the Michigan Advocacy Program, is working on creating several MLPs, including one in Jackson, one in Ingham County, and one statewide.

The Michigan Advocacy Pro-gram’s Alyson Robbins notes that an existing partnership between Cherry Health and Legal Aid of Western Michigan is up and running, and “really successful.”

Though the MLPs are intended to help all those who struggle with certain legal issues, Robbins comments, “We definitely think the partnerships would have a benefit for the health outcomes of migrant farmworkers.”

Another presentation at the Midwest Stream Forum discussed a topic that medical professionals may fail to correlate with poor health. “Food Insecurity among Farmworker Families and their Children” was an awareness-raising presentation by graduate students Barry Lewis and Juan Coronado under the supervision of Dr. Rubén Martinez of Michigan State University’s Julian Samora Institute. Dr. Martinez is no stranger to such discussions, having co-authored an upcoming book on health disparities in racial and ethnic minorities.

Though their work is preliminary, they quoted a 2007 report that “Latino children more likely than non Hispanic white children to not have enough to eat, have iron deficiency, or be overweight.” This is because migrant farmworkers may have access pretty much exclusively to foods that are both inherently unhealthy (cheap fast food) and culturally inappropriate (red-hot cheese shacks, for example).
A valuable contribution of that session was its history: few people know that the original agriculture workers were invited to come here through the 1942 Bracero program agreement between the U.S. and Mexico.

The presenters also focused on the vulnerability of migrant farmworkers. Not only do many not speak English, but they also are prevented by the nature of their work from completing their education. Other factors include reductions in the staff necessary to enforce regulations and a feeling among some people of general ill-will towards Latino populations

The team’s research is just beginning. “We plan to scan the literature for reports that provide empirical data on food insecurity among farmworker families to get a grasp on the scope of it, and then seek funds to conduct a study of migrant farmworkers in Michigan,” Martinez says.


  1. No comments
Sign in to post a comment »