Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs announced yesterday that the migrant laborers who have flocked to the state in recent years have the right to receive lawyers, journalists, and other visitors in the farms and orchards where they work.
The 10-page opinion affirming the rights of Maryland's 7,500 migrant workers came after church groups and government officials complained they were denied access to camps where health conditions reportedly were inadequate. Their reports prompted Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes to set up a commission on Migratory and Seasonal Farm Labor, which received Sachs' opinion yesterday.
Sachs ruled that the property rights of farm owners and fruit growers "are not absolute," and that rules restricting visitors to the work camps should be applied only in cases where the employers can show a need to protect business and security interests.
"We can perceive no legitimate business or security interest . . .that would justify denying the migrant workers the opportunity for aid and services and private service agencies and organizations," the opinion stated.
Most migrant workers are employed in fields and orchards in rural parts of the state, particularly along the Eastern Shore. Reports of poor living conditions surfaced and were reinforced when nuns and nurses bringing medical care to the migrants were turned away from some camps.
After lobbying by the Associated Catholic Charities of Baltimore, this session of the General Assembly enacted a measure requiring the registration of crew leaders. The bill was opposed by several legislators from the Eastern Shore, at the urging of farmers and fruit growers.
The Sachs' ruling is expected to arouse further interest in the conditions of migrant workers and win publicity for their cause by allowing reporters to visit them.
"The migrant has the right to receive these and other visitors in the privacy of the migrant's living quarters without the presence of the camp owner or any other person," Sachs wrote. He added that there should be no restrictions on the length of the guests' visits.