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Seeking Justice on Behalf of the Disenfranchised

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By Lizett Rodriguez Peña, 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow in the Crime Victims Justice Corps

Photo of Lizett Rodriguez Peña

I joined the Equal Justice Works Crime Victims Justice Corps because it was a chance to advocate for disenfranchised and marginalized rural workers in the community where I grew up, Watsonville, California.

My client’s stories reflect my own life story. I am a first-generation immigrant who witnessed labor trafficking in the United States at a young age.

I grew up in migrant camps about two hours from San Francisco. My experience in these camps opened my eyes to the discrimination, harassment, violence, and wage theft that rural workers face on an ongoing basis. In witnessing these atrocities, I became motivated to seek out justice on behalf of the most exploited communities of our society.

As a Fellow in the Crime Victims Justice Corps, I am one of 60 lawyers across our country focused on delivering civil legal assistance to victims of crime. At my host organization, California Rural Legal Assistance, I work alongside my colleagues to:

  • assist victims of human trafficking and hate crimes in obtaining immigration relief
  • represent immigrant victims of employment-related crimes at administrative and civil proceedings
  • advocate for LGBTQ and indigenous immigrant victims in rural and agricultural areas of California

My clients’ stories illustrate how important this work is and empower me to continue fighting for justice every day. One of these clients came to my office pleading for help.

When I interviewed this client, he broke down crying, telling me he had been working without pay for weeks. His employer would physically abuse him—the violence escalated to the point where his employer pointed a gun at him.

My client tolerated the humiliation, the harassment, and the violence perpetrated by the employer because he needed to support his family. He is a migrant worker and was afraid to come forward due to fear of retaliation. Language barriers also prevented him from learning about their rights under U.S. law. He knew the situation was wrong, but didn’t quite understand that he had become a victim of labor trafficking.

I informed my client about his rights, and together we contacted local law enforcement that same day to look into the situation. He is now safe from his employer but is seeking therapy because of the physical and emotional distress caused by his victimization.

Access to legal services in rural areas of California is very limited, and many individuals in these parts of the state are unaware of their rights. Currently, California Rural Legal Assistance is the one of the few nonprofit organizations in the area that provides free representation for temporary immigration relief. Many farmworkers who enter the country with an H2A visa—a visa for temporary agricultural work—often find themselves being labor trafficked by their employers, but due to language barriers, cultural differences, and financial needs, these crimes go widely unreported. Eventually, these abuses become normalized as a result of daily occurrence.

It is so important to have public interest lawyers like the Crime Victims Justice Corps Fellows, who can advocate on behalf of victims and provide culturally competent and trauma-informed legal services.

I feel honored to be part of a nationwide network of dedicated lawyers who are passionate about this work and who I can learn from and lean on when it gets challenging. I am very grateful to have been given this opportunity to pursue my passion for service and to bring justice to communities most in need.

To learn more about Lizett’s project and the work of our Crime Victims Justice Corps, click here.

CVJC is supported by an award from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime, Award Number 2017-MU-MU-K131, and private funding. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

My client’s stories reflect my own life story. I am a first-generation immigrant who witnessed labor trafficking in the United States at a young age.

Lizett Rodriguez Peña /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow