Category Archives: human rights

Legal Aid demands greater access to migrant workers

watermelon_smallThe Voice of America interviewed Maryland Legal Aid staffers Nora Rivero and Nathaniel Norton for a story about the problems they face reaching out to migrant farmworkers.

“Norton and Rivero say farm owners systematically intimidate them from doing their outreach to migrant workers,” said VOA reporter Mana Rabiee. “One farmer brandished a baseball bat at Rivero, they say, adding that another grower and his son threatened to shoot Norton.

“'[They] got out of their trucks and came up to the window started yelling very angry,’ Norton said. ‘One of the things the grower was yelling was, “You could be thieves. I’ve got the right to shoot people on my property.”

“Across the United States, outreach workers who deal with migrant farmworkers have similar stories of intimidation by growers. They say it’s designed to keep activists away from the poor farmworkers the activists hope to help.”

To see the segment and read the entire article, click here.

Legal Aid helps solve Howard Co. rental dispute involving Rottweiler

Metropolitan Maryland office staff attorney Sara Wilkinson

Metropolitan Maryland office staff attorney Sara Wilkinson

Maryland Legal Aid helped Hazel Sanders,  70 years old and disabled,  and her Rottweiler service dog obtain an affordable apartment after the management company agreed to drop objections based on the Maryland Court of Appeals decision earlier this year defining pit bulls as inherently dangerous, the Baltimore Sun reported today.

“Sanders reached agreement in mediation last week through the Howard County Office of Human Rights, where she had filed a complaint against Equity Management II for refusing to make an exception to its no-pets policy for a service dog, as federal law requires,” the article said.

Sara C. Wilkinson, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Bureau Inc., who represented Sanders, said the issue of the Court of Appeals case never came up in the four- to five-hour mediation session last Thursday at the Howard County Office of Human Rights, in Columbia,” the report said.

To read the article (behind a pay wall), click here.

Organizations create legal safety net for the homeless in Frederick Co.

No Published CaptionFor homeless Frederick County residents, perseverance and community support are key to navigating the legal system, according to advocates, the Frederick News-Post reported today.

“Attorneys provide free or low-cost legal advice to homeless families in cases ranging from minor criminal charges, such as panhandling or loitering, to bad debt and landlord-tenant disputes, which may have led to their becoming homeless,” the article said.

“When it comes to civil cases, several organizations in the county provide services, including the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, the Frederick County Bar Association and the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau,” the article continued.

“The Legal Aid Bureau served 1,871 people in Frederick County in 2011, and an additional 69,305 people throughout the state.

Alecia Frisby [above], a staff attorney at Legal Aid, said the office also refers about 20 cases each month that can’t be handled by her office to the bar association for assistance.

“When it comes to issues in court — criminal or civil — the homeless face more hurdles than other residents, dealing with problems such as how to receive notices from the court without an address or maintaining documents that can help their cases without a place to store paperwork.

“While most people can establish mailing addresses, Frisby said, phone access is a far greater challenge. In cases that move quickly — such as administrative agency appeals and those in District Court — she sometimes needs to ask clients without phones to return to the office several times a day, just in case they need to follow up on something.

“The Legal Aid Bureau tries to be flexible to help with the current needs of their clients, she said. In recent years, they have added weekly clinics that address unemployment and bankruptcy issues.

“‘I think we do the best we can. We’re constantly evolving. We’re always trying to determine what are the needs of our client base and how can we respond,’ Frisby said.”

To read the entire article, click here.

Legal Aid files complaint with U.N. about migrant camp access

WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2012—A coalition of 28 non-profit legal and social services organizations submitted a complaint today to the U.N. arguing that the practice of denying farmworkers the right to have visitors and social services providers the right to meaningful access to migrant farmworker labor camps is a violation of human rights law.

Maryland Legal Aid, with technical assistance provided by Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law, spearheaded the complaint submitted to Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, U.N. Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, by legal services, healthcare, workers’ rights, anti-trafficking organizations, and other community service programs that serve migrant farmworkers, representing all 50 states.

“This is the first time in history that these types of organizations have  joined together to submit a complaint  to a U.N. Special Procedure,” said Lauren E. Bartlett, director, Local Human Rights Lawyering Project at the Center for Human Rights & Humanitarian Law at American University Washington College of Law. “The legal aid and other organizations are making history by taking such a strong stance on expanding the rights of migrant farmworkers across the United States.”

Migrant farmworkers often live on the rural farms and ranches where they work. “They are completely cut off from the rest of society,” said Reena Shah, Human Rights project director at Maryland Legal Aid, one of the organizations that signed the complaint. “They cannot get legal help or go see a doctor when they need to – even if they suffer from HIV/AIDS or pesticide poisoning or fall prey to domestic violence or even child abuse.”

“Farmers and ranchers regularly harass outreach workers and even threaten violence if they attempt to talk to migrant farmworkers,” said Nathaniel Norton, supervising attorney, Maryland Legal Aid’s Farmworker Program. “Without the right to receive visitors and access justice, the ongoing human rights violations will continue to go unaddressed and will likely be exacerbated.”
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights is expected to review the complaint and communicate with the U.S. government towards a solution to the issue of migrant camp access and the right of farmworkers to receive visitors.  The joint legal aid complaint argues that a coordinated federal solution is necessary, given the widespread problem and the inconsistency in state-based policies.

To read the entire press release (with contact info), click here.

Human Rights Day celebrated around the world—just not here

Reena Shah

Reena Shah

From Reena K. Shah, Esq., the director of Maryland Legal Aid’s Human Rights Project:

When I was in the Peace Corps in Nepal, I used to walk from village to village telling the poor and marginalized that they had certain “rights” regardless of whether their country’s laws reflected those rights and regardless of whether their country’s government upheld them.

I told them that all the countries and all the leaders of the world had come together to make a bold and universal statement that human rights belonged to every single one of us simply by virtue of our humanity.

And inevitably during my stay there, school children and elders alike would come together and celebrate Human Rights Day every Dec. 10.  It was a day to acknowledge the inherent dignity of all humans and commit to working towards renegotiating the social contract in a way that actualized the principles of peace, freedom, justice and equality for all.

It is striking to me that as people around the world are celebrating again today, there is, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., an “appalling silence” here in the U.S.

This same silence was evident during this past election cycle when neither candidate spoke about human rights nor was questioned about them.

This is especially remarkable considering human rights are as American as apple pie and baseball.

After all, the Four Freedoms speech by President Franklin Roosevelt is cited as the opening salvo of the modern human rights movement.  And Eleanor Roosevelt is the central figure associated with drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the premier human rights document.

Lesser known may be that Martin Luther King Jr. actually had a vision of unfettered human rights for all, not just civil rights.  His message was one of racial equality, economic justice and poverty alleviation – pressing America to recognize economic rights as co-equal with political and civil rights.

Undeniably, America has embraced the mantle of promoting and applying the principles of the indivisibility and interconnectedness of all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights – in everyplace in the world. Just not at home.

And it is not as if there is no need for human rights in the U.S.  Currently, about 46.2 million people or 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.  More egregiously, over 25 percent of American children under the age of five live in poverty, with the rates for black and Latino children being 42.7 percent and 36 percent.

Considering that poverty among children carries consequences far beyond childhood in everything from education outcomes and worker productivity to long-term health costs, these numbers should be as shocking to the American psyche as those pictures from Abu Ghraib and allegations of torture that a decade ago made the world – and more importantly, Americans – question the U.S.’s commitment to human rights.

If we were truly a nation committed to the fulfillment of everyone’s human rights – our priorities would be different, our budget allocations would be different.  But in America, the deficit is not of resources, but of will.

What is necessary to create this will?  The underlying issue is there is not a mass conscientiousness about human rights.  So, the first step is for all of us to be aware—to know about our human rights; to understand their value; to talk about them; to see things in human rights terms; and to apply them domestically, as much as internationally.

Like the anti-apartheid movement demonstrates, human rights can bring forth a sea change in the lot of the oppressed.  Let’s remember that apartheid was sanctioned by the State and laws were the State’s choice tools to legitimate oppression.  But South Africans knew about their human rights.  They knew in their gut that even if something was legal, it did not make it right.  So, they rose up and demanded justice.

What we have today in America is not overt oppression, but its subtler cousin – where systems, legal or otherwise, are structured to reward the most powerful, while many struggle to obtain the most basic human needs such as food, housing, and health care.

And this is where human rights can be an instructive counterweight.  Human rights inform us to look beyond existing law to justice.

People around the world know about human rights – it’s a global movement and a common language of those struggling for justice.  The U.S. has been busy leading the rest of the world in this movement, but has left its own people behind.  It’s high time now for Americans to become aware and join that movement.

Tipping the scales in housing court

From an op-ed in The New York Times: It’s easy to tell who’s going to win in eviction court. On one side of the room sit the tenants: men in work uniforms, mothers with children in secondhand coats, confused and crowded together on hard benches. On the other side, often in a set-aside space, are not the landlords but their lawyers: dark suits doing crossword puzzles and joking with the bailiff as they casually wait for their cases to be called.

Millions of Americans face eviction every year. But legal aid to the poor, steadily starved since the Reagan years, has been decimated during the recession. The result? In many housing courts around the country, 90 percent of landlords are represented by attorneys and 90 percent of tenants are not. This imbalance of power is as unfair as the solution is clear.

To read the entire op-ed, click here.

Womens Law Center to celebrate 40 years

Tomorrow the Women’s Law Center will celebrate four decades of advocating for women’s rights, the Daily Record reported today. The organization, founded in 1972, will honor a leader who played a pivotal role at the center in each decade.

Reena Shah

For the first decade of the 21st century, the honorees are two law school associations that support the WLC. Representing the University of Maryland Carey School of Law is Reena Shah, director of the Human Rights Project at Maryland Legal Aid.

“I saw that women of my generation thought that equal rights had been achieved,” said Shah, who graduated from the University of Maryland law school in 2007.  “I saw a sense of indifference, and I didn’t buy that. There are always forces in society and women are always such targets in terms of how different forces can come in and take their autonomy.”

For more information on tomorrow evening’s event at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore, click here.