Today was my first day as a Migrant Farmworker Advocate with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS). I drove through Dakota, Goodhue, and Olmsted counties, talking with local business owners, city hall personnel, librarians, thrift-store managers, laundromat workers, gas-station attendants, post-office employees, restaurant owners, nursery entrepreneurs, and garden gurus. Most of the interactions I had were great. Once the individuals learned that SMRLS provides free legal services for low-income clients, be they migrant farmworker or local, they were sold on the idea and agreed to refer cases to our office or hang a posting on their bulletin board. The owner of Las Margaritas in Hastings even gave me a glass of Coca Light when he heard about my work as a legal assistant this summer. He was stoked to tell his customers about the free legal services.
But then there were others, the people who remind you why migrant farmworkers receive a special allocation of funds from the federal legal services budget.
“Are they legal”
“You’re not helping them move here, are you?”
“I’m sorry, I just don’t think my customers would be interested,” said a thrift store supervisor.
All of these interactions came as a surprise to me. Working with low-income clients, I assumed that most people would be for justice, whether the recipients were local Scandanavian-Americans or browner citizens of Texas. I believed that most people wouldn’t even question whether they were legal (which they are – migrant farmworkers migrate internally within the United States like the Okies of the Great Depression, moving from harvest to harvest, steadily working their way north), at least once they realized that my legal work with them involved receiving fair wages or livable housing.
I still believe that, though a few members of small-town city halls and owners of thrift stores did their best to dissuade me that people are innately good and that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward Justice.” I still believe that most people, when confronted one on one with a real-life human being, would react with compassion rather than hate, bigotry, racism, or even small-mindedness. I only hope that through the course of the summer I can communicate to some of these people who haven’t yet met an immigrant or a migrant farmworker what Dr. King dubbed the “inescapable network of mutuality.” Who knows – perhaps by summer’s end one of those people who turned legal services away will stand at the cashier’s table of Las Margarita’s, jawing it with the owner over comp’ed sodas…