The attorney son of a Guatemalan immigrant is in the forefront of defending the labor rights of about 70,000 farm workers in Illinois.
Since 2009, Miguel Keberlein has been the supervisor of the Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago.
Keberlein started working for the Legal Assistance Foundation in 2002 and when the organization began the migrant project he did not hesitate to accept his current post.
This son of a U.S. father and a Guatemalan mother earlier worked with Water For People, which builds potable water systems, schools and bridges in rural communities in Guatemala.
Helping others is part of a family tradition, since his father met his mother while working with the Peace Corps in Guatemala in the 1960s.
So, it was almost natural that he opted to help migrants.
“It’s a population that simply operates below the radar,” said Keberlein in an interview with Efe. “They are people who work in the fields from sunup to sundown but people never see them.”
Keberlein regularly visits farms in the southern and central part of the state and he even opens temporary offices where law students advise the workers in civil cases.
The majority of the cases of migrant workers, Keberlein said, focus on job-related questions.
“The core of each complaint we receive at first has to do with they didn’t pay me what they should have paid me, or I’m missing a check. Later, when we analyze the situation we note that they were also exposed to pesticides or their house is terrible or they bought a car and they got swindled,” he said.
Apart from the low salaries, the farm workers also are housed in inadequate quarters.
“There’s an abandoned hospital in Rantoul, Illinois, where 400-plus migrant workers are housed every summer,” Keberlein said.
Migrant field hands are largely excluded from the laws that protect other workers.
The migrant workers are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act. They also do not receive overtime pay and lack the right to organize, except in California and in Washington state.