Legal aid representatives can come uninvited to farmworker housing on private property, but employers can set visiting rules that are "reasonable," according to an opinion issued by Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
The opinion, requested by the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, affirms that a blanket ban on unsolicited contacts with lawyers would interfere with farmworkers' constitutional rights.
The opinion, however, suggests farms can control access to some degree. "Whether regulations governing visits to a labor camp are reasonable is a case-by-case question," the opinion states.
Washington Growers League Executive Director Mike Gempler said Wednesday that farms need to know who's coming onto their property. "We have multiple reasons for that, including COVID and food safety," he said.
"We've had some conflicts with people who wanted to come in, but didn't want to tell us who they were and sign in," Gempler said. "We have to be able to have that ability, so that's something we're going to be working through with the AG and our attorneys."
The Commission on Hispanic Affairs sought the opinion at the behest of the publicly funded Northwest Justice Project, a nonprofit legal aid organization.
Attorney general opinions do not have the precedent-setting force of court decisions, but reflect how the office views a legal question and can influence judges.
According to the commission's request, attorneys, law students and outreach coordinators are sometimes refused access to farmworker housing. The legal aid representatives want to make unannounced calls on workers to see if they need legal help or want information about their rights, according to the request.
The AG opinion didn't rule out requiring legal aid representatives to get permission to visit farmworkers in all cases, but said it would be "skeptical" about such barriers. Regulations couldn't be tailored to keep just lawyers out, according to the opinion.
The opinion should put to rest the idea that legal aid representatives need an invitation from farmworkers, Northwest Justice Project attorney Michele Besso said.
"I think it's as good as we could ask for," she said. "I'm hoping it will help us to reach farmworkers without the conflicts that can sometimes accompany the visits."
The opinion relies partly on a 1973 case in which a union organizer and an attorney were arrested and charged with trespassing after refusing to leave a Walla Walla asparagus farm. The organizer and attorney had been invited by farmworkers.
The Washington Supreme Court ruled that the farmworkers were tenants and had a right to have guests. The court's reasoning suggested that even if the organizer and attorney had not been invited, not letting them onto the farm might violate the workers' constitutional rights, according to the AG's opinion.
Other courts have recognized that if employers are able to isolate migrant workers, they could be deprived of their rights, the opinion stated.
Gempler said farms have an interest in logging visitors and setting hours, concerns unrelated to lawyers questioning workers.
"If we do a good job, we're going to be OK," Gempler said. "We just want to have some reasonable ability to know who's on our property and when."