February 19, 2008 — University of Virginia School of Law alumna Mary Bauer's message to students at the Conference on Public Service and the Law last Saturday was not one of personal sacrifice, but of personal fulfillment. She encouraged students to choose a career path that will truly make them happy — and earning loads of money is no substitute.
"You should not, I would suggest, think of others when you decide what work you will do," she said. "You should not be called to public service out of a sense of sacrifice and duty. Instead, you should think of yourself. You should think of a career and choose it because it is good for you and it is good on every level. Choose it because it will give your life meaning — it will make you happy — it will make you a better person."
The first U.Va. law student to win a prestigious Skadden Fellowhip, Bauer has dedicated her life to serving those who are marginalized and mistreated. Now the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project, Bauer fights on behalf of immigrants in nine states in the Deep South.
Although some have criticized her efforts to help those working in the United States illegally, Bauer doesn't doubt that representing immigrants is the best way to protect all citizens.
"When one group of people may be abused and exploited with impunity, that obviously degrades the working conditions, wages and civil rights of everyone here in our society," she said. "There's a moral dimension to our work as well. We simply believe it is the right thing to do."
Both legal and illegal immigrants often face atrocious working conditions, she said. Some industries purposefully hire or recruit undocumented workers from other countries to ensure a compliant, hard-working staff.
Workers are routinely subject to abuse and exploitation because they are immigrants, she said. Often the workers don't complain for fear of being fired, evicted, or deported.
Lawfully employed immigrants pay thousands of dollars in collateral to their employers to secure work in the United States. They are typically very poor and have to borrow money at high interest rates or sign over the deed to their home in order to afford it. Illegal workers also pay a steep amount of money to be perilously smuggled into the country.
Industries that employ undocumented workers are known for their low wages, dangerous conditions and habitual violations of the law. Foreign-born Latino men are twice as likely to die on the job as U.S. citizen workers, and they earn significantly lower salaries. Bauer deals primarily with migrant farm workers, who are some of the poorest laborers in America, earning an average annual salary of $6,500. Laborers who work on a contract basis earn even less, with an average annual salary of $3,500.
"Because farm workers have no measurable political influence, there has been little organized opposition to the efforts of agribusiness to deny basic legal rights and legal protections to farm workers."
Bauer and the Southern Poverty Law Center are actively trying to change the plight of immigrant workers by bringing class-action lawsuits, testifying before Congress, and projecting their voice in the national debate. The center also issued a report that likened U.S. guest-worker programs to slavery.
"What we see in the media, frankly, is that immigrants are being scapegoated for economic problems around the country, while the research shows that, on balance, the role that immigrants play on the economy is largely positive."
Bauer criticized CNN's Lou Dobbs for featuring known hate-group leaders on his show and offering false information while vilifying immigrant workers. Bauer and the Southern Poverty Law Center have contacted Dobbs and his producers to ask him to retract what they consider to be his misstatements, which they have declined to do.
"We've really tried to turn the terms of the debate and say, 'We can have a civil debate about what is the appropriate level of immigration,' but it is not appropriate to vilify immigrants and really call for the kind of hostility and physical violence that people experience," Bauer said. "It is clear that it is not only undocumented immigrants who pay the price for that. Recent studies have shown that Latinos and citizen Latinos really do feel threatened and uncomfortable by this rhetoric."
Over her career, Bauer has listened to thousands of stories from clients who speak out at great personal risk. All they really want is justice for other workers, she said. "It is truly an honor to represent people who believe so deeply in the notion of justice for all."
Bauer is content with her decision to go into public service and to continue the fight for justice. "You can choose to be a part of the great march toward justice — as slow and imperfect as it is — and I hope and wish that you choose that for yourself."
In its ninth year, the student-run Conference on Public Service and the Law featured panels on the upcoming reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, political redistricting, the regulation of greenhouse gases, the expansion of children's health care, wrongful convictions, jurisdiction on Indian reservations, refugee migration from Iraq and prosecutorial discretion. Attorneys from a variety of fields participated in lunch workshops designed to inform students about potential careers in public service. Panelists traveled from across the country to participate in the ongoing discourse of public-service issues. New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram spoke at the opening dinner on the importance of public service.
• Reported by Emily Williams