October 5, 2012

Attorney fights for rights of migrant workers

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Sam Vega/Hoy

By Jeff Kelly Lowenstein/Hoy — Enterprise Rent-A-Car must love Miguel Keberlein-Gutierrez.

That’s because the supervisory attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago logs 6,000 to 8,000 miles each month during the summer as he zigzags across Illinois in a ceaseless effort to reach out to, connect with, and provide information and legal services to migrant workers.

Today’s first stop is at the Rantoul Motel, on the outskirts of a town where migrant workers come each year to detassel corn.

“You have rights,” he said, distributing business cards to a group of workers standing in the parking lot.  His voice bears the imprint of his childhood in Wisconsin.

Five workers were living in a room that was less than 50 square feet.  A pair of men slept in each of the two beds, while a fifth man slept on the floor.

They had seen fliers posted by Keberlein’s two summer interns and contacted him.

Raul Iracheta, a 44-year-old grandfather of nine, explained that his problem had begun with small spider looking bites on their arms that had spread over his body.

He lifted his shirt.

Half of the right side of his back was covered with red blotchy bites.  They prevented him from sleeping.

Their rashes came from pesticide, the men said.  The crew leader had insisted that they go in the field that had been sprayed even though workers pointed out a sign forbidding just that. Another issue arose; like most migrant workers, the three men affected by the bites had no health insurance.

Keberlein organized a ride from them to a nearby community health clinic.

But this was complicated, too.  Daughters of two prominent area crew leaders did the intake work at the clinic.

So did a third woman who asked the men if they had written down the type of pesticide to which they had been exposed.  It would be hard to treat them without that information, she said.

The men had not.

“It’s going to be very hard to get treated today,” she said.

Keberlein kept pushing and secured an appointment for the three men at a nearby hospital.  He organized for a retired volunteer at the Multicultural Community Center that opened in 2009 and that serves migrant children to drive them there.

At moments like this, although he is wearing blue jeans and a black button down t-shirt, rather than a tux, and his hair is orange and without gel, rather than dark and slicked back, Keberlein seems less like a lawyer than Harvey Keitel’s problem solver Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction.

Off to see Rolando Hurtado, a 23-year-old Pioneer employee from Mission, Texas, right on the border.

The pupil of his right eye was an angry red, but he didn’t seem concerned.

“It’s a good company,” he said, smiling a toothy grin.  “I like it.”

Keberlein gave Hurtado a business card.  Outreach is a big part of what he does.  He says that he tries to give workers information and free legal services so that they can make up their own minds and make meaningful decisions.

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It can be discouraging work.

Agricultural laborers are excluded from many of the protections in federal statutes like the National Labor Relations Act and the overtime clause contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act. The laws were originally designed to leave out black workers, Keberlein said.

More Latinos do that work now, but the laws haven’t changed.

 

And the laws that do apply to agricultural workers have little teeth, he said.

At times, the laws’ limits seem to be just another obstacle Keberlein confronts as he trudges up a Sisyphean mountain filled with hurdles that also contains workers’ fear and ignorance of rights, and corporate distancing of themselves from the worker to reduce their liability.

But Keberlein keeps going, fueled by a passion for justice that was forged during his childhood.

One incident played a critical role.

When he was 10 or 11 years old, he was visiting his mother’s hometown of San Manuel Chaparron, about 95 miles outside of Guatemala City (His parents had first met in Guatemala years earlier when his father was a Peace Corps volunteer).

An older cousin, a doctor, took the young Keberlein to watch workers cut sugar cane in fields on the Pacific side of the country.

They were sent into the cane just 24 hours after it had been burnt, armed with only a machete.

Many had no shoes.

The images of the workers’ webbed feet and hands seared themselves onto Keberlein’s brain.

They have never left.

Keberlein’s desire to serve the people he feels have been wronged is just one of the tools at his disposal to combat the injustices he encounters.

He’s got his pair of interns each summer and a legal fellow on the way in the fall.

He’s got his staff attorney Jose Alonso and paralegal Pedro Gaytan.

He has an understanding of the value of publicly shaming a company.

He also has knowledge of the law and willingness to hold his ground.

And relationships.

He drew on the last three when he went to the hospital at the former Chanute Air Force Base that has been converted into living quarters.

It’s a musty, antiseptic, institutional building.

Keberlein spoke briefly with a worker and then went outside.

Six kids sat around a wooden picnic table.

Ranging in ages from 13 to 16, they had already woken up at 3:30 before working an 11-hour day.  They were waiting for a bus to come and take them to an evening school program from 6:30 to 9:00.

“I’m glad you’re going to school in the summer,” he said before going to other wing of the building to greet Juan De La Cruz, a crew leader he considered comparatively sympathetic.

Then landlord Jason Webber, a well-built man with short, dark hair pulled up in his car and marched over forcefully to Keberlein.

“You have no right to be here,” he said.

“I have clients,” he said.

“Who invited you?” Webber asked.  Hostile.

“It doesn’t matter,” Keberlein replied.

“I’m the landlord,” Webber asserted later.

They are in effect renting a space from you, Keberlein answered.  They have a right to invite who they want.

He also invited Webber to call the police.

Which he did.

Then he told Webber he could call Pat Geneser, Monsanto’s head of migrant workers for North America.

Webber did that, too.

A police car with a K-9 unit pulled up. Webber spoke to Geneser. He couldn’t hear what the other man said at first.

“All right, Pat,” he said after a while.   “Whatever you want.”

Keberlein 1, Webber 0.

He did not gloat, but he did smile.

That interaction was not unusual, he said later while driving back to Chicago.  It showed what the workers’ experience is in terms of trying to control access to people telling them about their rights.

Back to the hotel.

The three men had had their appointment and a prescription, but, like the Hydra, two issues arose where one had been resolved.

How to get to the drug store and how to pay for the prescription.

Keberlein resolved the first by asking the interns to drive the men to the appointment the next morning and by asking the men to tell the community health clinic to bill the company, which had already agreed to pay medical bills associated with the pesticide exposure.

He saw some other workers from McAllen, Texas in the parking lot, gave out some more business cards, and told the men to call if they had legal problems.

It was early evening and Keberlein was preparing to head for home.  He had arrived later and left earlier than usual that day (He’s been known to cruise around the Chicago suburbs at 5:30 a.m. or 6:00 a.m. doing outreach, pull into a rest area for a couple of hours and then head the rest of the way to Rantoul.).

He struck a pensive tone as the Hyundai Santa Fe started the 150-mile trek back to his home, waiting wife and 4-year-old daughter Isabella.

“I think what we do is good, but at the end of the day, when we leave, they’re still here,” he said.