2008 PFIG Recipient Margaret Cox

Career Administrator

Margaret Cox
College of Arts & Sciences
Spanish
2009 Graduation Year

Internship: The Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville, VA.

This summer, I am working specifically with the Immigrant Advocacy Program for the Legal Aid Justice Center here in Charlottesville, using my knowledge of Spanish primarily to help the Advocacy Program with their Outreach efforts. Legal Aid spreads information about basic rights, legal recourse, and community resources. As non-citizens, migrant workers sometimes suffer egregious abuses: withholding of pay vital to them and their families, wages much lower than those agreed to, substandard and in some cases abysmal living conditions on work sites. Legal Aid tries to reach out to migrant workers and provide them with succor and legal recourse when such situations occur.

Notes on the first week

We are planning our first outreach trip next week and should have about one a week. I am also looking forward to our major outreach trip in July, when our staff will spend about four days on the Eastern Shore prior to the picking season. We will meet with workers to create awareness about our organization and establish a relationship with them. A second trip, later in the season, is also being planned to check in with the workers as the season progresses.

Nonprofits typically keep a really ‘lean’ office, and so I’m excited to be providing office support, even if my contributions as an undergrad are less technical than those of the law students. In my first week, one of my most interesting tasks, though it sounds mundane, was sorting through boxes of H2-B visa request forms for Virginia. In order to hire immigrant workers, employers must first certify that they attempted to hire American workers for the given job, offering what they call the “prevailing wage” and providing documentation of their efforts. Yet, a lot of the ads in the classifieds advertise lifeguarding positions for May that are run for three days in January, and many of the company’s descriptions of the prevailing wage, especially for construction workers and skilled laborers, seem very low. All of my coworkers seem to really love their jobs- as one of the lawyers put it, sometimes, it seems like we are “tilting windmills,” and we don’t win every case, but the work has the potential to be extremely rewarding. I think working here will be both enlightening and enriching, and I feel that I have a lot to learn from all of my coworkers. I am incredibly happy with my decision to work for Legal Aid, helping ensure justice and fair treatment for all workers in Virginia.

Midway

I have had many unique opportunities and experiences during the first half of my work with the Legal Aid Justice Center . We have been focusing a lot on outreach during the last few weeks, checking in with workers here on H2A and H2B visas and talking to them about the working conditions for their jobs.

I’ve traveled through much of rural Virginia armed with informational booklets in Spanish. Outreach involves using pored-over visa request forms, detective work, and luck to track down potential clients and provide access and information for immigrants working here in Virginia . We distribute reading materials about basic rights as workers in the United States to help ensure that employers are following the laws, paying the minimum wage, supplying transportation and adequate housing, and providing pesticide training for agricultural workers. For non-citizens, the specifics of field sanitation and workers’ compensation may seem like obscure facets of labor law, yet it is essential the people performing jobs critical to the American economy be treated fairly and be informed of their rights in the workplace.

I’ve had the opportunity to accompany clients to court in a case involving withheld wages. I’ve given on-the-street ESL classes to try and help day laborers in Northern Virginia utilize the time they spend waiting for work. I’ve heard stories about checks marked "void" before delivery to Spanish-speakers, about middlemen gouging workers seeking visas to work legally in the US , and about egregious violations of workers’ rights. But, I’ve also witnesses invigorating, successful suits, been privy to tales of escaping conflict in Latin America to work in the states, and been graciously received by workers who have no specific work-related problems but appreciate that our organization visits them every year regardless.

I’m really looking forward to the next few weeks with Legal Aid. I plan to keep taking every opportunity that comes my way, going on as many outreach trips as I can, and using my experiences to gain perspective that will serve me in the long-term.

Final Reflections

My previous posts have focused on my work with the Immigrant Advocacy Program, particularly while doing outreach to migrant farmworkers across Virginia, traveling East to Yorktown, Southwest to Scott County and Carroll County for a two-day trip, and locally, to Fork Union and other surrounding camps. Yet, simply by virtue of working in the Charlottesville Legal Aid Office and attending case review meetings, I’ve been able to see a lot of the other work that LAJC (the Legal Aid Justice Center) does representing the underprivileged. Clients range from elementary school children expelled from school to older people in Nursing homes fighting with Medicare to get the treatment they need and cannot afford otherwise.

Legal Aid has been really eye-opening in a lot of different ways, and working with the amazing and dedicated people in the organization has been incredible. Everything from translation work on informational handbooks to looking up case numbers to helping close out files has been rewarding, because the end result is worthwhile. It is so much easier to get through pages of spreadsheets when the end goal is something important to you, is something you personally believe in. I think in the future I will pursue a job related to social justice, and I’ve particularly liked working with a non-profit. In general, I think the people that I worked with are here because they really love their jobs. They could be making lots more money working for high-powered corporate firms in New York, but something deeper keeps them coming back, makes them excited to get up for work in the morning.

In the last few weeks of my internship, I was able to go out to the Eastern Shore with LAJC, the federally-funded Central Virginia Legal Aid Society (with whom we share a building, and whose Farmworker Project employees I have gotten to know very well during long car rides to Outreach trips), and a nonprofit organization out of DC called Farworker Justice. Over four days, we split into groups and visited several hundred workers, primarily tomato pickers, at dozens of camps across the shore. The first day was a Sunday, so we went to a few churches that we had coordinated with that have services in Spanish to hand out our information and do some intake. All of our outreach materials - the booklets and pamphlets we hand out- are in Spanish. In the entire time that I was working with LAJC, we only met one group of workers that spoke English exclusively- a small group of black potato farmers on the Eastern Shore . Everyone else was Latino. It was amazing to me how many people from Latin America come here to work, who form the backbone of our agricultural industry, and who are often exploited.

I've never really seen this kind of poverty within the United States before. One camp that we saw on the shore was incredibly overcrowded, with two couples per 14 by 14 room in bunk beds, in poor conditions and laden with pests- mice, flies everywhere because the doors sealed poorly, bed bugs in the mattresses. The bathrooms were awful- my boss went in to take some photos really quickly, and he was retching when he came out. We asked several people about them, and they said they never went in anymore- that they had just been going in the woods, which are full of ticks. We met with a representative from the Health Department Tuesday morning, who said he was having someone inspect the egregious camp that day, and who called us later in the day to say that they had gone out to the camp and were having it taken care of, which was heartening. The workers had just moved into the camps July 1st, and it was obvious there had been no trash pickup or maintenance of any kind since everyone arrived. The toilets clearly had not been working for at least a week. The kind of oversight and accessibility that Legal Aid provides is critical, because many people are left voiceless and without recourse without it.

I plan to continue doing side projects for Legal Aid this fall, including some translation work I am doing for a handbook for the JustChildren program and aid preparing for the fall Fundraiser, where the Immigrant Advocacy Program’s 10th anniversary is being highlighted. I thank the Parents Committee for giving me the opportunity to pursue this work in public service, and I thank all of my bosses, coworkers, mentors, and friends for an amazing and enlightening summer. I challenge other undergraduate students to think outside the box when pursuing internships- to try something a little different, figure what you like about the job and what you don’t, see what kinds of work and what environments are most appealing to you. Be unconventional, be daring, but most of all, follow your passion!