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Mary Bauer remembers the first time she met Rosa Zamora. It was 1998, in the small Charlottesville offices of the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers, where Bauer is executive director. Zamora had left behind her husband, four children, and the small village on the west coast of Mexico that she called home to travel to Virginia to pick crab meat for a seafood processor. She had dreams of sending money back to the family that she would be unable to see for another six months. It didn’t work out as planned. She was barely earning enough money to feed herself. Part of the problem lay in unexpected, and ultimately illegal, deductions for the gloves and knives that workers were required by law to use — costs that burned through a significant portion of her paycheck. Zamora and dozens like her took their cases to Bauer’s group, which eventually recovered thousands of dollars for the workers. That kind of result would be much more difficult to achieve today because of a deal struck between the Justice Center’s primary funder, the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia, and two of the center’s perennial foes: the Virginia Seafood Council and the Virginia Farm Bureau. The deal came in the wake of a successful lobbying campaign by the two business groups and by some legal sleight-of-hand by Republican lawmakers to introduce a bill that threatened, among other things, to squeeze Legal Services financially, prohibit it from bringing class actions, and bar it from funding organizations that represent migrant workers. Instead of risking being told how, and on whom, it could spend its funds, Legal Services agreed to stop funding the representation of one discrete group: migrant workers. That meant effectively cutting off the three-lawyer Justice Center, whose clients are largely poor and uneducated field hands who speak little English and are not residents of the United States. Half of the Justice Center’s $250,000 budget comes from Legal Services. Much of the other half consists of private grants that are limited in time or scope. In return, the legislation was killed. “We think it’s wrong and foolhardy to write off this most vulnerable population,” says Bauer, who claims that she was not permitted to attend the negotiations between Legal Services and the business groups. “What we need to do is get together and fight.” But Frances Porter, executive director of the Virginia Seafood Council, questions the use of state funds for noncitizens or — worse yet — for people who have entered the country illegally and are not contributing to the tax base. “Why do we have illegal aliens,” Porter asks, “and are they entitled to free legal representation in this country?” Representatives of the Virginia Farm Bureau did not return numerous calls seeking comment. PRICE OF SUCCESS Much of the animus felt by the business groups may also be due to the Justice Center’s successes. Three years ago, the organization sued the seafood processing company on behalf of Zamora and 60 other workers who complained of the paycheck deductions. The agency won more than $100,000 for its clients. And in the latter half of 2000, the center recovered more than $25,000 in back wages for Northern Virginia day laborers. The Seafood Council, the Farm Bureau, and some of their legislative allies struck back in the Virginia General Assembly. As proposed by Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, House Bill 1942 would have required that all entities receiving state funding for legal services be subject to strict federal guidelines. The legislation also would have prohibited class actions, the representation of illegal aliens, legal assistance to prisoners, and the collection of attorneys’ fees from opponents, among other things. Although legal service providers had weathered the threats and a similar bill in the past, a Republican-controlled legislature, combined with an unusual legislative move, may have led the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia to stumble in its tracks. H.B. 1942 — or at least the ideas that it encompasses — has been the subject of debate before the Virginia General Assembly previously. Just last year, State Sen. J. Randy Forbes, R-Chesapeake, introduced Senate Bill 760, legislation with nearly identical language to H.B. 1942. Brought before the Senate during the 2000 session, S.B. 760 passed the Courts of Justice Committee by a narrow 9-6 vote. Of the nine yea votes cast, only one Democrat lent his voice to the majority. All six nays were cast by Democrats. During the full Senate vote, the split between Republicans and Democrats remained. Every vote to quash the bill was made by a Democrat. In the end, S.B. 760 passed the Senate by a vote of 24-15, and the House was given its chance to review it. But the bill never made it to the floor. The Republican-controlled House Courts of Justice Committee took up the review of S.B. 760, and that is where the bill died, after a successful lobbying campaign by legal service providers across the state. COMMITTEE DETOUR This year’s version of the bill, H.B. 1942, took a different path, however. The bill was routed not to the Courts of Justice, but to the Militia and Police Committee — which had not been lobbied by opponents of the bill. “We spent the last year working on the people in the House Courts of Justice Committee,” says Alex Gulotta, the executive director of the Charlottesville-Albemarle Legal Aid Society. “The fact that it was put in Militia and Police was not germane and, in my opinion, it was held hostage.” The Justice Center is a project of the Charlottesville area agency. Bauer agrees: “We felt pretty certain that we could have defeated the bill in the House Committee on Courts of Justice. But it didn’t go there.” Kilgore, who introduced the bill, could not be reached for comment. Legal service providers know all too well the kinds of cases and individuals who would be affected if a bill like H.B. 1942 or S.B. 760 were ever to become law. People legally in the United States on temporary, student, or tourist visas cannot avail themselves of legal service groups receiving federal funding, says Charles Greenfield, the executive director of Legal Services of Northern Virginia. The restrictions on the representation of illegal aliens and people in the United States on visas has meant that Greenfield’s office, which accepts federal funding, has had to turn away a number of immigrants. The class action restriction in H.B. 1942 would have stopped a pending Eastern District of Virginia suit in its tracks, says Gulotta. The Charlottesville legal aid society, with the help of co-counsel and civil rights attorney Victor Glasberg of Alexandria, Va., is suing the state on behalf of mentally retarded individuals, arguing that they have been illegally denied Medicaid services. Glasberg expects the case to be certified as a class action within the next week. And even if a case is never filed, the ability to threaten a class action is crucial, argues Gulotta. A couple of years ago, the Charlottesville area society represented local public housing residents who believed they had been overcharged for rent, he says. The matter settled before a class action was filed. “I don’t think that result would have been achieved had we not been able to follow through,” says Gulotta. H.B. 1942 also came to light at a time when the GOP controls not only the full General Assembly, but every statewide office as well. Last year’s General Assembly marked the first time in more than a century that Republicans managed to grab hold of the majority. Bauer believes that the burgeoning number of Republicans holding office may have played a part in Legal Services Corporation of Virginia’s decision to agree to a settlement. “I do think there was concern about the makeup of the General Assembly in that things are not likely to get better in the future,” says Bauer. Mark Braley, Legal Services’ executive director, did not return calls. OUT OF CLASS Regardless of how the bill progressed through the General Assembly, H.B. 1942 was necessary to curb the excesses of the Justice Center, says the Seafood Council’s Porter. “For a long time, the Virginia Justice Center has actively pursued H-2B workers who are in Virginia working in seafood processing plants,” Porter says. “We believe that for the most part the seafood industry complies with the federal regulations. We feel that the Justice Center has been extremely aggressive in finding any noncompliance.” But Bauer contends that none of the Justice Center’s suits — or the money she wins for her clients — are the result of overzealous litigation. “It’s been almost exclusively wages to which workers were entitled,” she says. “It’s not been obscure damages awards.” Porter acknowledges that companies in the seafood industry have violated the law, but says that was in the past. “There were some companies who were cited and settled out of court,” she says. “But there are not gross violations in the Virginia seafood industry, and today I don’t think there are any violations in the Virginia seafood industry.” Although the bill to restrict the Legal Services Corporation of Virginia’s funding has been killed, some are still concerned that groups with grudges against legal service providers will threaten to bring similar bills in the future. And there is nothing in the present agreement to stop that from happening. “There’s no assurance,” says Bauer, adding, “There’s no way to protect against it.” And whether the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers will be able to continue with its work is also an open question. Bauer vows to fill the newly created hole in her budget through private fund raising. She has already secured a $50,000 grant. When legal aid societies receiving federal funds found themselves working under a severe set of restrictions five years ago, many of them turned to local bar associations for pro bono legal assistance. Greenfield also says that his group has received “tremendous support” from the cities and counties in the Fairfax area. But Bauer says the Justice Center does not have the option of asking for pro bono assistance in migrant worker matters. “These cases are very hard for people to do if they don’t specialize in this work,” she says. “For one, none of my clients speak English. They are very transient. “Hoping that the private bar steps up to the plate is not sufficient,” she says. “It’s part of the solution, but not enough.”

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