Thornburg champions justice for migrant farmworkers

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Thomas Thornburg shows off his Champion of Justice Award, flanked by the State Bar Immediate Past President Julie Fershtman and current President Bruce Courtade.

LEGAL NEWS PHOT  BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

In terms of recently receiving the Champion of Justice award from the State Bar of Michigan, Thomas K. Thornburg is fairly reluctant to talk about himself, but he is more than willing to tell you about Michigan Farmworker Legal Services (FLS), and indeed about the conditions of migrant farmworkers as a whole.

Even when he discusses his nomination for the award, it is through the lens of the relationship FLS had with the nominator, George Wirth. Thornburg had difficulty trying to determine where the nomination had come from so he could offer thanks. He eventually found some people who remembered that Wirth, the retired Director of Hearings and Mediation, and Legal Counsel for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC), had asked them to write letters of support. But shortly after submitting the nomination, Wirth unfortunately passed away.

“He worked closely with us in setting up these [MCRC] farmworker forums where the commissioners and the staff would take testimony,” Thornburg says. As previously detailed in the Grand Rapids Legal News (see, for example, the 8/26/2009 issue on the forum held at Grand Valley State in Allendale), the series of informal hearings resulted in a major report, A Report on the Conditions of Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers in Michigan, released in March 2010.

Thornburg says that one beneficial result of the report is that there is a cross-departmental and multi-agency Implementation Work Group that meets monthly. He continues, “George was instrumental in getting all those agency directors’ buy-in to this process. He helped a lot to overcome some of the understandable resistance we met.”

The State Bar of Michigan (SBM) reports that in the nomination, Wirth said, “During our public forums, several of our staff were in tears over what we saw or heard... and without exception, everyone came away with respect and admiration for the hard work and selfless dedication of Tom Thornburg and his staff.”

Thornburg regrets that he will never be able to thank George Wirth.

Moreover, he cannot say enough about the benefits of the MCRC report. He expects to see even greater results as the work group, which includes such state departments as Labor, Agriculture, Human Services, and Civil Rights, and even agencies like the Michigan State Police, continues to make its way through the report recommendations.

As just one example, Thornburg points to the dire situation in 2009 regarding migrant housing inspections, and what he calls “the crowning achievement so far” of the report.
At the time, there were only four inspectors throughout the state for the over-800 licensed migrant housing “camps” in the state — and not all housing facilities are subject to licensing. The inspectors are required to visit each of the 800-plus facilities at least once in a year, to ensure that the minimal guidelines are being met concerning such matters as sanitation and overcrowding.

“At the point when the MCRC process was being conducted in 2009, there was serious talk about zeroing out that function,” Thornburg says. “Recommendation number one of the 15 recommendations calls for securing a stable staff of migrant housing inspectors, and it was clear that even four wasn’t enough. So we said, we have to beef this up considerably. Through some significant pushback and education on what’s important, we were able to preserve the funding and then as a result of instituting a simple license fee, more money became available. There will now be seven full-time migrant housing inspectors and some bilingual support for those inspectors.”

Thornburg credits then-chair Matt Wesaw, who worked beside migrant workers when he was growing up in Bangor, with persistence in getting the report done, but it is certainly clear from all reports that Thornburg himself was indispensable.

Though FLS is part of Legal Services of South Central Michigan, the agency covers farmworkers in the entire state. Federal money from the Legal Services Corporation, the same source that funds Legal Aid of Western Michigan in part, gives grants for both Native American and migrant farmworker legal aid separately from the “meat and potatoes” basic field funding for the five legal aid agencies around the state.

Thornburg started out the Michigan phase of his career at the Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project in Grand Rapids. Out of that, in 1997, was born Farmworker Legal Services  with offices in Kalamazoo. (The Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project still exists, but is now called Migrant Legal Aid.)

Before moving here, based on marrying his wife who is from Southwest Michigan, Thornburg served in several other states. During his second year at the University of Minnesota Law School, he worked at a legal aid clinic providing legal assistance in civil matters to prisoners. He served as an assistant state public defender in Minnesota before private criminal law practice in that state and in Nebraska. “At about the five-year mark, I came to the recognition that I liked legal services better, so in 1982, I went back in,” he says.
After that he worked with Legal Aid in Madison, Wisconsin, eventually becoming the manager there. For a short time after moving to Michigan, he worked for the United Auto Workers legal assistance program, but, he says, “I remembered fondly that in the Madison office we had the farmworker grant for the state of Wisconsin, and I loved working with the clientele, so I sought out that opportunity.”

FLS has two managing attorneys, Thornburg and Daniel Inquilla, who has a specialty in immigration law, as well as four other staff attorneys.

Though Thornburg’s background as a litigator is helpful, he seems amused as he comments, “We kind of have a reputation for suing, but that’s undeserved. We might take one case to court every five years.”

Instead, FLS concentrates on raising awareness with the general public; educating farmers about the law; investigating conditions — Thornburg and FLS’s summer interns literally hop in the car and visit migrant camps; helping with compliance and filing of complaints or applications, primarily in employment and public benefits; and compiling data about migrant farmworkers and conditions.

Regarding the last, Thornburg is excited that Dr. Alice Larson, a national expert in “enumerating” migrant workers, will be back in Michigan this fall to determine just how many migrant and seasonal farmworkers (and family members) are here. In 2005, Dr. Larson estimated 90,000, of which over one third were children under the age of 20.

Thornburg observes that working at FLS has been enormously satisfying. “The people are so grateful for assistance, first of all. But there’s also still such a need to keep shining the light on this. If we can’t improve conditions to a minimal standard and keep them there, what does that say about our civilization?” he asks.

“So it’s a challenge that I eagerly take up,” he concludes.