Access to Farmworker Labor Camps: A Case Study of Folgueras v. Hassle
Farmworkers have the right to receive visitors at their agricultural labor housing in Michigan and service providers have the right to enter and leave property that has agricultural labor housing without the knowledge or permission of the property owner or the farmworkers’ employers. The case Folgueras v. Hassle, 331 F. Supp. 615 (W.D. Mich. 1971) is an important case to remember when discussing the rights related to agricultural labor camp access for persons providing information or services to farmworkers and for private citizens who have been invited by a resident living at an agricultural labor camp. The Folgueras case in Michigan was decided after two separate lawsuits, one involving outreach workers of a service provider and a migrant farmworker family and the other involving the United States, were brought against farmer Joseph Hassle for denying access to the farmworkers residing in his labor camps.
The court considered two separate questions: (1) Do farmworkers residing in agricultural labor camps that are privately owned by an agricultural employer, labor camp owner, or other labor camp operator have the right to receive visitors, and (2) do agencies that provide services to farmworkers have the right to enter the camps and otherwise access the workers in the camps without interference by the agricultural employer, labor camp owner, or other labor camp operator? The court answered yes to both questions as detailed below.
The facts giving rise to the lawsuits originated in the summer of 1969. Hassle owned various agricultural labor camps, including around 220 housing units, throughout Western Michigan. The camp at issue in this case was secluded and could only be accessed by a solitary private roadway. The only mode of transportation for the majority of the families residing in this camp was through the crew leader. The Gutierrez family had been recruited from out of state to work for Hassle and had been fronted travel and living costs by Hassle’s crew leader which were deducted from their initial pay. The family attempted to apply for food stamps to supplement their income, but Hassle refused to sign the required paperwork.
After being unable to apply for food stamps, the family reached out to United Migrants for Opportunity, Inc. (UMOI) for food assistance. UMOI was a private nonprofit organization that provided numerous services to farmworkers, including legal aid, food assistance, and education assistance. Two student coordinators for UMOI, Donald Folgueras and Violadelle Valdez, went to visit the Guiterrez family in Hassle’s camp at their request. The day before this visit, Folgueras had been forcibly removed from the camp after taking a water sample as part of UMOI’s research of camp conditions. Hassle had received numerous complaints regarding minimum wages and an injury to a worker which crew leaders blamed on visitors coming into the camp to talk to the farmworkers residing there. As a result, Hassle had informed his crew leaders that any visitors to the camp should be arrested for trespass.
Valdez had been invited by the Gutierrez family and Folgueras accompanied her. Hassle saw them drive into the camp and arrived shortly after they did. Hassle immediately attacked Folgueras, including knocking him down and kicking him. Hassle kept Folgueras pinned to the ground with a shotgun for around two hours in front of numerous witnesses. The police were eventually called and Folgueras and Valdez were given the opportunity to leave the camp. When they refused to leave, they were arrested for criminal trespass.
The following summer, Hassle continued to deny access to all visitors at all of his labor camps. He prevented church affiliated organizations from entering his camp to provide spiritual or religious services, and violently attacked another UMOI employee. He denied access to one of his camps to a migrant health clinic worker from the Berrien County Health Department who sought to inform a worker that his son had been admitted to the hospital and that his wife had a miscarriage. Hassle threatened the clinic worker and the farmworkers if he found her at any of the camps. Further, he denied access to, and threatened physical violence against, an employee of Dowagiac Public School District who was recruiting children for migrant summer school.
As a result of these facts, the United States brought a lawsuit, which the State of Michigan joined as a plaintiff, to prevent Hassle from denying access to his labor camps to representatives of federal, state, local, and private assistance programs. The rationale behind this lawsuit was that the United States Congress created programs designed to assist migrant farmworkers by providing financial assistance to agencies designed to improve the living conditions and skills of migrant farmworkers through the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The Act includes providing financial assistance for activities such as education, health services, and legal advice and representation, to name a few. The United States also sought to prevent Hassle from denying entry to persons who had been invited on the property by those living in the labor camp and other people seeking entry on reasonable terms and conditions.
The United States and Hassle entered into a consent decree, which the Court signed and approved based on its analysis and opinion in this case. The Court discussed how the majority of farmworkers live in extreme poverty and how the current system leaves them without real bargaining power and actually incentivizes crew leaders to bring in workers for the lowest wages for farmers. It also discussed the often inadequate and overcrowded housing conditions, isolation of labor camps, language barriers for workers, unfamiliar geography, lack of transportation, and how long hours and low wages made leaving the camp difficult. The service programs and funding by Congress requires being able to access the workers to provide them services and to break the isolation and poverty that farm work perpetuates. In addition to the lawsuit by the United States, Folgueras and Valdez and members of the Guiterrez family also filed a lawsuit against Hassle claiming denial of equal protection and the deprivation of their privileges and immunities of citizenship under color of law.
The Folgueras Court considered and weighed the different rights in play regarding access to labor camps, including those of the camp owner, the farmworker, and the visitor. The labor camp owner claimed property rights in the land. The farmworkers claimed their Constitutional rights of freedom of speech, religion, and association and their rights as tenants. Visitors claimed their Constitutional rights as well. After weighing all interests, the Court held that a labor camp’s private property rights did not outweigh the rights of farmworkers and their visitors and that labor camp owners cannot bar access to visitors or representatives of assistance groups at labor camps.
The Court then analyzed the various rights asserted by all parties that supported its holding. It first analyzed the Constitutional rights claimed by both farmworkers and visitors. The Court found that constitutionally Hassle could not deprive farmworkers living in the camps, assistance organizations, or visitors of farmworkers reasonable access to the camps because he opened portions of his land for use by farm working families.
In April of 1971, the Michigan Attorney General filed an opinion answering the question of whether public and private organizations may enter a labor camp to visit farmworkers without violating Michigan’s criminal trespass statute. In Opinion of the Attorney General #4727, filed April 13, 1971, the Attorney General stated that when owners of labor camps permitted agricultural workers and their families to occupy the camp, the camp became public. Therefore, “the freedoms of religion, speech, press, and assembly guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution are operative throughout the length and breadth of the land” (p. 38) and do not stop existing inside of a labor camp.
Given the Michigan Attorney General’s opinion, the Court analyzed whether enforcing the Michigan criminal trespass statute against labor camp visitors would be an unconstitutional state action under the First Amendment. The answer to this question was dependent upon the “nature and use of the property involved.” An older Supreme Court case, Marsh v. Alabama, dealt with a similar situation when it decided that private ownership in land was not enough to deprive workers living in a company town of their First and Fourteenth Amendment liberties because once privately owned land is opened to the public, it is no longer “private.” In Marsh, the Supreme Court reasoned that even though the workers lived on private land owned by the employer, they were still free citizens of the state and therefore had the right to remain informed and uncensored. Therefore, when a private landowner opens the property up to the public, their rights become limited by the rights of those using the property.
In Folgueras, the Court cited additional cases that used the principle used in Marsh: “the more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general, the more do his rights become circumscribed by the statutory and constitutional rights of those who use it” (1945, 506). Based on this analysis, the Court held that labor camp owners/operators, including Hassle, cannot constitutionally deprive service organizations or visitors reasonable access to the labor camps of farm workers because the land had been opened to the public once he allowed farmworkers to reside there. According to the Court, “[O]wnership alone [cannot] give him [Hassle] the right to censor the associations, information and friendships of migrants living in his camps. His rights of ownership of the land in question must bend to the countervailing rights of those persons rightfully living on his land.”
The Folgueras Court then analyzed the argument of whether property rights give a labor camp owner/operator the right to prevent access to farmworkers residing in their labor camps. The answer to this question is no. This discussion involved a common law school property textbook case example, New Jersey v. Shack. In Shack, the court found that property rights did “not include the right to bar access to governmental services available to migrant workers” even when an outreach worker and a staff attorney of a legal services organization had been previously convicted of criminal trespass after refusing to leave a privately owned migrant camp. The takeaway textbook holding established in this case was that: An owner/operator of a private labor camp does not have the right to dispense with the fundamental rights of those who reside there under property law. The Folgueras Court concurred with the Court in Shack that property rights of private camp owners/operators do not allow them to deny access to people or agencies that have the “primary objectives of the health, welfare or dignity of the migrant workers as human beings.”
Finally, the Folgueras Court analyzed whether farmworkers have rights to visitors under Michigan landlord-tenant law. The Court held that farmworkers residing in labor camps were tenants under Michigan law, and therefore were allowed to have guests and service provider organizations visit them at the agricultural labor camp. The Court reasoned a landlord/tenant relationship exists because the housing was part of the migrant worker’s compensation that provided a justification for the low wages that they are ultimately paid (the workers essentially pay for the housing via their low wages), the housing is required to meet specified minimum safety standards (the agricultural labor camp operator, acting as a landlord, maintains a fixed quality of the housing), and the workers receive exclusive possession of the unit so long as they work for the agricultural employer (a specified term of exclusive occupancy). Therefore, migrant farmworkers receive all the benefits of tenancy, including the right that a landlord (or agricultural employer/labor camp operator) not interfere with the tenants’ rights to associate with and invite guests of their own choosing.
The Folgueras Court found that owning real property does not give a property owner/operator the ability to control the lives of those who reside on that property. This conclusion was the same regardless of whether answering the question based on a constitutional analysis, a property rights analysis, or a landlord/tenant analysis.
Folgueras v. Hassle has a lasting impact for today’s farmworkers. It established that farmworkers have a Constitutional right to the freedoms of speech, religion, and association and as such a labor camp owner/operator cannot prevent service providers or guests from entering a labor camp to visit with farmworkers residing there. It also established that farmworkers residing in labor camps are tenants under Michigan’s landlord tenant law and they are entitled to the tenants’ rights to associate with, or invite, guests of their own choosing. Finally, it established that agencies that provide services to farmworkers have the right to enter and otherwise access the workers in the camps, without permission or interference by the camp owner or operator.
Folgueras v. Hassle, 331 F. Supp. 615 (W.D. Mich. 1971). https://www.leagle.com/decision/1971946331fsupp6151812
Marsh v. Alabama (US Sup. Ct. 1946). https://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/torts/torts-keyed-to-dobbs/contract-and-duty/thorne-v-deas/
Michigan, Office of the Attorney General, 1971. Op. # 4727. https://www.ag.state.mi.us/opinion/datafiles/1960s/op04031.pdf
State v. Shack, 58 N.J. 297 (Sup. Ct. of NJ 1971). https://ipxcourses.org/Property/1971_Shack.pdf