In the 1980s, license plates from Erie to Philadelphia proclaimed, “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.” Today, the Keystone State’s farmworkers confidently affirm, “We’ve got a friend in Villanova.”
Of the more than 200 law schools approved by the American Bar Association, only one houses a clinic that assists the agricultural workforce. In terms of geography, Villanova University School of Law may seem an unlikely host for the Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic. But in terms of mission, the fit is perfect.
Villanova believes in the dignity of the human person,” says Beth Lyon, JD, professor of Law and the clinic’s founding director. “It’s the ethos here."
The clinic provides legal services to low-wage laborers in agricultural and food-related jobs. Cases typically fall into two categories: immigration and employment. Many cases allow students to argue before an adjudicator and hone negotiating skills.
Although they get plenty of cases via referral, students are required to do outreach in rural areas. That means striking while the produce is ripe. During apple-picking season, students accompany lawyers from Friends of Farmworkers and Philadelphia Legal Assistance to Adams County, Pa., to speak directly to farmworkers. Visits expose students to the realities of a farmworker’s life. In addition, students take the clinic on the road during spring break, serving farmworkers in places such as North Carolina, the Delmarva Peninsula and Florida.
To overcome language barriers between student-lawyers and clients, Professor Lyon and Mercedes Juliá, PhD, now chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, created a course-internship for Spanish students. Interns learn community interpreter skills and apply them in the clinic. “It is a win-win situation,” says Dr. Juliá. “We are part of an interdisciplinary effort and help a community in need while our students practice their language skills.”
Professor Lyon appreciates being at an institution where this work needs no defense and where she can use Catholic social teaching to inspire students to seek justice for the powerless. “Farmworkers experience trauma in coming here, are separated from their families, do difficult work and yet put the food on our tables. They deserve our respect and protection.”