Clinic Students Produce Powerful Migrant Crab Pickers Report

This summer, American University Washington College of Law International Human Rights Law Clinic issued a report titled “Picked Apart: The Hidden Struggles of Migrant Worker Women in the Maryland Crab Industry,” a comprehensive look at the experiences of migrant workers in the Maryland crab industry. 

The report describes experiences of Mexican women who work in the Maryland crab industry as H-2B migrant workers, and is the result of over 40 formal interviews conducted by clinic students in both the U.S. and Mexico since 2008.Every year, hundreds of Mexican women travel thousands of miles from their impoverished, rural home communities to work on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the state’s historic crab industry. Maryland crab companies have increasingly come to rely on these women, who enter the U.S. on temporary guest worker visas known as H-2B visas.

Immediately after its release at a press conference at the National Press Club, the report started generating buzz.  The story was picked up by the Associated Press, The Washington Post, WAMU, Baltimore Sun, and numerous other outlets around the region and nationwide.

Picked Apart has received considerable attention from the press, workers’ rights advocates, and also from the public at large,” said Jayesh Rathod, director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University Washington College of Law.  Rathod is an expert in immigrants’ rights, labor and employment, occupational safety and health, and the intersection of law and organizing.

“The report offers a fresh perspective on an industry that is familiar to many of us,” Rathod said. “While we often discuss migrant workers in abstract terms – especially in the current political and economic climate -- we rarely hear the voices and perspectives of the workers themselves. I believe that aspect of report makes it particularly compelling for readers.”

Daniel Broughton and Michelle Benitez, both 2010 graduates, became involved in the project through their work with the International Human Rights Law Clinic.  Both were key parts of the team that put the report together, interviewing the workers on the Eastern Shore and educating them on their rights as migrant workers.

“Our mission was two-fold,” Broughton said.  “Our long term goal was to conduct research on the general living conditions, wages, and workplace treatment.  The other goal was to make these workers aware of their individual rights and raise awareness of the H-2B program in the general public.”

Broughton is most interested in legal work that lives at the intersection of human rights law and international economic relations.  Prior to his involvement in the project, Broughton had worked in community organizing in Detroit and Lansing, Michigan.  But this, he says, was different.

“This project required a much more sensitive approach,” Broughton said.  “It was initially more difficult gaining the confidence of those participating.”

He was also struck by the work ethic of the migrant workers he spoke with in interviews at Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“The passion that the workers had put the H-2B program in perspective,” Broughton said.  “It made it clear how important the program is to these workers and their families.”

Benitez was prepared for the experience, but was still surprised by the realities of the project. 

“It definitely was very eye opening,” Benitez said.  “These are workers that are here for a short period of time.  Most of the cases I had worked on before were with permanent residents.  I learned what conditions trans-national workers are under, and how many issues can come up when these kinds of workers are here.”

Nicole Gamble ’09 was involved with the International Human Rights Law Clinic while a law student, and took a position after graduation with the group that the clinic partnered with on the report - Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc. (CDM), a transnational non-profit organization dedicated to improving the working conditions of migrant workers in the United States.  She was struck by how heavily communities back in Mexico were relying on the seasonal crab picking jobs.

“I didn’t have a lot of preconceived ideas,” Gamble said.  “I didn’t anticipate how important the program was to the native communities.  But just because we hear workers saying ‘we need work’ doesn’t mean that we can’t make it safer.  If the program is flawed, we need to continue to work for improvements.”

The report focuses on the entire migrant worker experience, including recruitment, placement and housing, working conditions and wages, workplace safety, discrimination, and employer-employee communication.The experiences of the women that the clinic students spoke with demonstrate structural flaws in the H-2B program. The flaws implicated local, national, and transnational conditions.

Other students that worked on the project include Gillian Chadwick ’09, Shanti Martin ’09, Caroline Lyznik ’09, Carlos Cristi ’10 (Women and the Law Clinic), and Hortense Moulonguet-Doleris ’10 (Women and the Law Clinic). 

As a result of their findings, the students have made recommendations, which can begin to remedy the workplace struggles the women currently face, as well bring the H-2B program into compliance with international norms.

“Beginning this fall, we will build upon the work underlying Picked Apart, and further expand our Clinical Program to 11 clinics with the creation of the Immigrant Justice Clinic,” Rathod said.

The Immigrant Justice Clinic is a full-year, live-client clinic focusing matters affecting immigrants and temporary migrants in the Washington, D.C., area – matters including deportation defense and detention conditions, immigrant employment rights, and civil rights. The new clinic, which will be directed by Rathod, is an outgrowth of an increased focus on immigrants’ rights issues across the Clinical Program.