Indigenous Guatemalan and Mexican Workers in Washington State: Living Conditions and Legal Issues

Matthew Geyman, Andrea L. Schmitt, Sarah Leyrer, Daniel G. Ford, Rebecca Smith, Matt Adams

Abstract

Indigenous workers are migrating to Washington State in increasing numbers. These workers often speak little or no Spanish or English, and instead speak pre-Hispanic languages such as Mixteco (spoken in southern Mexico) and Mam (spoken in Guatemala). Mam and Mixteco workers migrate to the U.S. due to a number of social, political and economic pressures in their countries. Once they are in the U.S., Mixteco workers generally perform difficult and poorly paid work in agriculture, while Mam workers work long days harvesting floral greens, often for less than the minimum wage. Indigenous workers face numerous legal needs, often involving immigration, wage payment, workers’ compensation, housing, health care and language access, but addressing these needs is complicated by language barriers, cultural differences, and a general distrust of outsiders fostered by the history of violence and oppression in the workers’ home countries. Case studies of litigation on behalf of Mam and Mixteco workers illustrate these dynamics. To address the legal needs of indigenous workers in Washington State, lawyers’ associations in the home countries and in the U.S. should establish a transnational project to develop pro bono services for workers; law schools should train lawyers and students, in conjunction with community groups, to enforce workers’ rights; and advocates should develop a pilot partnership project to match medical services in the U.S. with corresponding services in Mexico or Guatemala to cooperate in providing treatment and compensation to deserving workers under the Washington State workers’ compensation system.

Keywords

Indigenous; migration; immigration; Mixteco; Mam; Washington State; transnational labor; floral greens; language barriers; pro bono legal work

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