State extends free legal aid to farmworkers

Gov. Gavin Newsom unveils pilot program to provide legal services to undocumented farmworkers involved in state labor investigations

Tractor tending a field along S Alta Ave outside of Dinuba. (Kenny Goodman)
Tractor tending a field along S Alta Ave outside of Dinuba. (Kenny Goodman)
Darren Fraser
Published July 27, 2023  • 
1:00 pm

SACRAMENTO, CALIF. – In response to what he described as bad actors using the threat of deportation to cower undocumented farmworkers from standing up for their legal rights, Governor Newsom rolled out a $4.5 million pilot program that will provide free legal services to workers involved in state labor investigations.

In the July 19 press release announcing the program, Newsom said, “Farmworkers are the backbone of our economy and we won’t stand by as bad actors use the threat of deportation as a form of exploitation.” According to the release, it is estimated that half of California farmworkers are undocumented.

The as-yet-unnamed program will provide case review services, legal advice and representation by an attorney at no cost to the individual; it will be jointly administered by the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) and the California Department of Social Services.

The program is still in its infancy – the state is still contracting with legal aid services. When the program ramps up, the $4.5 million will go towards helping those individuals who currently have complaints under review by either the Department of Industrial Relations’ Labor Commissioner’s Office, the Division of Occupational Safety and Health or the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Many of these cases involve wage theft, failure on the part of employers to pay overtime, unsafe working conditions – including working in adverse temperatures – and other work-related violations.


Erin Hickey is communications deputy with the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency. She said the pilot program is specific to undocumented farmworkers, but the state also provides undocumented workers in any industry who are involved in labor investigations a means to connect with state labor agencies. 

“These agencies can submit a statement of interest to DHS (Department of Homeland Security) that they support a request for deferred action,” Hickey said.

Deferred action is key for an undocumented individual to move forward with a complaint. Hickey said deferred action – which can last as long as two years – in effect provides the individual an assurance they will not be deported as a result of filing a complaint with the state.

“Submitting a statement of interest to DHS is akin to us saying, ‘We need the worker to be able to speak to us,’” she said. She said when LWDA gets involved, they steer clear of asking about the worker’s immigration status.


Hickey said individuals are naturally reluctant to come forward – retaliation and/or deportation loom large in their minds. She said LWDA relies on two existing outreach programs to connect with workers. These programs involve community-based organizations (CBOs) that serve as liaisons.

“There’s a ton of CBOs across the state who have those direct connections to the workers and are a trusted messenger,” Hickey said. “We’re sort of deputizing them.” She said enforcement entities, such as California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), also have outreach teams.

The University of Syracuse hosts a site named TRAC Immigration. According to site data, in 2018, California deported 31,929 persons; in 2019, 30,942; and in 2020, 18,425. The site does not identify individuals by race, sex, or country of origin. As of July 16, 2023, over 31,000 individuals are detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) centers in the U.S.

Darren Fraser