Newsom announces funding for undocumented farm workers filing labor complaints

July 28, 2023 /

Governor Gavin Newsom launched a pilot program to assist undocumented farmworkers with legal assistance for state labor investigations. According to the press release, this $4.5 million program will provide case review services, legal advice, and representation by an attorney. 

“Farmworkers are the backbone of our economy, and we won’t stand by as bad actors use the threat of deportation as a form of exploitation. In the absence of Congress modernizing our broken, outdated immigration system, California continues our efforts to support immigrant families.”

The release states that around 50 percent of farmworkers are undocumented, which may contribute to their fear of retaliation, keeping them from reporting labor claims. With the help of the pilot program, preventive measures will be taken to avoid exploitation by providing additional tools to California labor enforcement departments. 

The program will be partnered with the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency and the California Department of Social Services. 

 Diana Tellefson Torres, Chief Executive Officer of the UFW Foundation, stated her support for the program in the release. 

“Prosecutorial discretion ensures that farmworkers will be empowered to enforce their labor rights and stand up against the abuse and exploitation they often face,” said Tellefson Torres. “Undocumented farm workers – who form such a large and essential portion of our nation’s workforce – must be able to enforce their rights without the threat of immigration retaliation.  Additionally, it is of utmost importance that undocumented workers have access to free and low-cost legal services, so that any farmworker who has experienced workplace violations can come forward knowing they are protected from deportation. We are excited about the new pilot program and look forward to working with Governor Newsom to make it a success.”

Aligning with the deferred action plan for undocumented workers in labor cases from the Biden administration is one way this pilot program may help people feel more comfortable coming forward. 

Kern Sol News spoke with an attorney about what this pilot program could mean for undocumented farmworkers. Attorney Maria Olaguez explained that with deferred action, the undocumented workers would legally be in the united states while having deferred action. This means that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has committed to not pursue deportation for the indivual during that time. 

Olaguez stated that people she speaks with usually have already dealt with the fear of being deported and decided to take the risk of talking to an attorney. For some people, however, the financial burden can be what still holds them back from seeking legal assistance. 

“Free legal assistance is a huge deal, especially for farm workers. The pay is very low. The work is temporary; some of my farm worker clients will go weeks without working,” said Olaguez. “It’s very hard to save money. The rent is so expensive in California, and undocumented persons generally don’t qualify for public benefits, so it’s very hard.”

She added that having access to free legal services will encourage people to get services and alleviate the fear of being charged a lot of money for even talking to an attorney. 

“Maybe they think, oh, if I call an attorney, they’re going to charge me even for the phone conversation, and I don’t know how much they are going to charge me,” said Olaguez. 

In addition to the assistance with cost and deferred action, Olaguez pointed out what she sees as another major benefit, an announcement of support.

“Just having an announcement by the governor of California saying we’re going to help. We want to help. We know that these farmworkers have a great need for legal services. We know they’re here,” said Olaguez. “I think that having an announcement by the governor, having the support might ease the fear in undocumented farmworkers about whether the government supports them or not.”

Olaguez explained that one thing that has to happen for the program to work is for everyone who helps the farm workers with the claims to work together. 

“We have to work together. Immigration attorneys have to work together with employment attorneys and the labor attorneys so that we can connect and help the farm workers apply for this relief,” said Olaguez. 

She wanted to note that while the program from the governor is only for farm workers in state labor cases, the deferred action through the Biden administration extends to all undocumented people. 

To any undocumented person who thinks they might be eligible to get deferred action, Olaguez advises them to reach out to an attorney or a trust community organization to see if they qualify. Lastly, Olaguez cautioned people to stay away from notarios and make sure whoever they speak to is an attorney or a representative credited by the Department of Justice.

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JaNell Gore

Ja'Nell Gore is a student at Cal State Bakersfield. In addition to writing for Kern Sol News she is a poet who loves any chance she has to perform and be with her community.