Micronesians and Marshall Islanders recruited to work in the United States by "body brokers" may now be able to get free legal assistance in Florida and Maryland.
But a ruling by the U.S. Legal Services Corp. still bars them from receiving legal aid from organizations supported by federal tax dollars.
Robert Williams of Florida Legal Services Inc., a nonprofit corporation based in Tallahassee, said his organization, unlike federally funded legal services corporations, is not barred from providing assistance to the Pacific Island job recruits and is willing to do so.
"We don't have the same restrictions," Williams said. "We don't get federal funds."
In Maryland, officials of the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center say they also would be willing to represent Micronesians and Marshallese recruits in need of legal services. Like the Florida legal aid organization, the Public Justice Center is not federally funded but is a private, nonprofit organization.
The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel reported last month that the brokers routinely require the recruits to sign contracts that bind them to employers for one- or two-year terms. Damage clauses in the contracts or separate promissory notes the recruits sign obligate them to pay the brokers between $1,500 and $2,500 if they walk off the job. Some sign similar contracts with nursing homes, their most frequent employer, that obligate them to pay thousands more.
Many of the recruits complain that they don't understand the English-language contracts.
John Nethercut, executive director of the Maryland legal aid center, said that while the agency does not normally represent individual clients, it would consider taking on referrals of Pacific Islanders under its Workers Rights Project, a program set up to represent workers being denied their legal rights.
"We generally do not provide one-on-one legal services unless there is a broader impact, for instance, where there is a practice that affects a group of clients or that challenges an unjust legal hurdle," Nethercut said.
Williams said he was surprised to learn that the Micronesians and Marshallese have fewer legal protections while here in the United States than migrant workers have.
He was referring to a May 7, 2001, ruling from the U.S. Legal Services Corp. that cites federal law in excluding Micronesians and Marshall Islanders from receiving federally funded legal aid while they are in the United States. They can get those services, however, in their own countries under a 1986 Compact of Free Association that extends U.S. government services to the islands.
The compact permits islanders to enter and work in the United States without visas, making them a valuable commodity for employers eager to fill low-paying jobs that Americans disdain.
"You have a situation where they [Micronesians] can travel freely from their country to the United States, but they don't have legal representation when they are here," said Eric Kleiman, a spokesman for the Legal Services Corp.
That situation could change. The agency has issued a public notice that it is reviewing its policy regarding the representation of aliens and invited testimony from interested parties in late June. But officials said no final decision has been made on whether to change the policy.
As a result of the ruling, Pacific islanders are often unable to get legal representation when they are sued by the body brokers who recruited them to work here.
Ronald G. Kirschenheiter, executive director of the Micronesian Legal Services program, said that his staff will now refer any cases it learns about to the Florida legal services organization.
"It's a step in the right direction," Kirschenheiter said.
Williams said his organization, which has offices in several Florida locations, including Tallahassee, Miami and Jacksonville, currently represents a variety of clients including migrant farm workers. He cited one recent case in which a Florida federal appeals court placed limits on the amount that employers can deduct from migrant workers pay checks for transportation and other expenses.
Under the ruling, employers cannot make deductions that take workers' final pay checks below the minimum wage.
Williams said that the ruling could help Micronesians working in Florida amusement parks and other tourist destinations, who routinely have various expenses deducted from their paychecks. Those workers were recruited by North Pacific Trading Co. of Kissimmee and charged $85 to $95 a week, plus a monthly $25 administrative fee.
"We might be able to help them," Williams said.
North Pacific sued more than a half-dozen of its recruits who left before their contracts expired, according to records in the Osceola County Circuit Court. In one case, a married couple that walked away ended up settling for $5,100, a sum that included the broker's legal fees.
In an interview, Hubert Yamada, a partner in North Pacific, defended the use of promissory notes and the filing of court suits against runaways.
"This is a business to us. We do it to make money. We have to do it to recoup our costs," Yamada said.
Most of the other lawsuits may soon be thrown out, records show. A judge issued a notice to North Pacific last month stating that the cases would be dismissed unless attorneys for the recruiting firm take immediate steps to move forward with their cases.
The judge, Ronald A. Legendre, set an Oct. 24 deadline for North Pacific's lawyers to respond. He also set an Oct. 29 date for a hearing on the dismissal notice.