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Law Review Symposium Focuses on Plight of Immigrant Workers

March 05, 2009

More than 150 lawyers, professors, students, and community members gathered Feb. 27 for the University of San Francisco School of Law's annual Law Review Symposium.

Throughout the day-long series of panel discussions and the keynote address, attendees grappled with legal issues related to immigration and employment.

Titled "The Evolving Definition of the Immigrant Worker: The Intersection Between Employment, Labor, and Human Rights Law," the symposium included sessions on sexual harassment of female immigrant workers, high-skilled immigrants in the U.S. workforce, immigration raids and human rights, and parallels between chattel slavery and U.S. immigration policy.

"This symposium was inspired by the notion that, despite the developed nature of employment, labor, immigration, and international human rights laws, immigrant workers—particularly those who are undocumented—remain susceptible to exploitation in the workforce," said Law Review Symposium Editor Jenica Mariani 3L. "The review also believed that this topic would be particularly timely in light of the renewed potential for immigration reform by the Obama administration."

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In his welcome address at the event, USF School of Law Dean Jeffrey Brand said it is critical to probe the critical human rights issues related to immigrant workers in the United States.

"The well-being of a nation may be measured by the dignity we afford those at the margins, such as undocumented immigrants often uprooted from their country and family and simply trying to earn a living," Brand said. "How we treat such folks is truly the best barometer of the humanity or lack of humanity of our nation. What is at stake today goes far beyond the all important rights of those who toil on our fields, on our homes, in our factories, and in our restaurants. Once we begin to dehumanize and mistreat anyone in our society, we begin to degrade and undermine the very foundations of our democracy...This symposium is about making sure that doesn't happen."

The event was organized by USF Law Review editors and staff members under the guidance of Professor Maria Ontiveros, who served as faculty advisor.

In his keynote address, John Trasvina, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, focused on what may be in store for U.S. immigration policy under the Obama administration. During his campaign, Obama vowed to introduce an immigration reform bill in 2009.

"That will happen," Trasvina said. "But that is just introducing a bill. That doesn’t say enacting a bill or what the bill will look like." Still, he said he is optimistic that positive immigration reform will come in the next few years, noting his confidence in both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder.

In conjunction with the symposium, the law school hosted the annual Pemberton Lecture Feb. 26 at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Professor Juan Perea of the University of Florida College of Law spoke about compromises struck in the U.S. Constitution that protected slavery and endorsed a culture in which some workers were cast in perpetual servitude because of their race, and William Tamayo of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission provided commentary. The same day, the law school hosted "The Bandana Project," a program launched by Esperanza: The Immigrant Women's Legal Initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center to raise awareness of sexual violence against women farmworkers, who use their clothes, including bandanas, as weapons in the fields to protect themselves from sexual violence. Members of the law school community decorated white bandanas to honor those who have taken action to hold the perpetrators and employers responsible for such violence.