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Legal Aid Challenges|Ban at Maryland Farm

(CN) — A Maryland orchard and police unconstitutionally prevented a nonprofit from informing migrant workers about their rights and social services, legal aides claim in a federal complaint.

The Legal Aid Bureau Inc, which also goes by Maryland Legal Aid, says its employees make a point of reaching out to migrant and seasonal agricultural workers at least once a year to discuss minimum wage and other rights noncitizens might not know about.

With seasonal workers often living in employer-controlled housing, Legal Aid might be their only access to free legal advice concerning overtime, safe housing, workplace health and safety, and social services, according to the April 20 complaint.

Legal Aid and one of its attorneys, Nohora Rivero, say they ran into an obstacle this past summer, however, while trying to visit Fruits and Vegetables by Lewis Orchard, better known as Lewis Orchards, in Dickerson.

When Rivero and a summer clerk visited the Lewis Orchards on Aug. 18 to speak with its 12 noncitizen workers, farm owners Linda and Robert Lewis "ordered the Legal Aid employees to leave," according to the complaint.

"Linda Lewis immediately called the Montgomery County Police Department, which dispatched Officer Kettering to the scene," the complaint states.

In addition to the Lewises and their farm, Legal Aid's lawsuit names Montgomery County as a defendant, plus Police Chief J. Thomas Manger and Officer Alexander Kettering.

"Rather than informing the Lewises of Legal Aid's right to visit the workers, and even after being provided a copy of the opinion affirming this right, Kettering instructed Rivero and Evans to leave," the complaint states. "Kettering issued no-trespass warnings to both Rivero and Evans, making both Legal Aid employees immediately subject to criminal trespass prosecutions if they returned to the Farm within one year of the notice's issuance."

Yet Legal Aid says it receives grants from the Legal Services Corp. and the Maryland Legal Services Corp., which "were created by Congress and the Maryland legislature, respectively, to fund civil legal aid programs throughout the U.S. and Maryland."

Plus the complaint paraphrases Maryland's attorney general as saying that Legal Aid workers "may not be prevented from visiting migrant workers, even against the wishes of private landowners."

"Migrant farmworkers are among the most vulnerable populations in American society," the complaint continues. "They are overwhelmingly poor and undereducated, and often speak limited English. Most workers are non-citizens, and even those in the country legally on work visas fear employers' threats to have them deported or arrested. They are often isolated in small encampments and dependent on their employer for housing, transportation, and access to basic services like health care. These conditions make it easy for employers to exploit migrant workers, denying even the scant protections the law provides; employers' violations of wage and hour, occupational health and safety, and housing laws are widespread."

Legal Aid accuses the county defendants of violating of the First and 14th Amendments and Article 40 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. It also wants the court to declare that the Lewises have no right to keep them from visiting workers on the farm

The complaint demands compensatory and punitive damages, as well.

Legal Aid is represented by Deborah Jeon, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, and Kit Pierson with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll in Washington, D.C.

The defendants did not return requests for comment Tuesday.

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