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Tyson boosts workers' legal aid

by Nathan Owens | February 27, 2021 at 2:11 a.m.
FILE -- The exterior of the Tyson Foods Inc. headquarter Friday, Feb. 5, 2016 in Springdale. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/ANTHONY REYES)

Tyson Foods said Friday that it was working with nonprofit Arkansas Immigrant Defense to provide no-cost legal services to workers and their families.

The pilot program will save Tyson workers in Berryville and Green Forest thousands of dollars in legal fees, Tyson said.

The meatpacking company started its own immigrant legal service program in some U.S. processing plants last year after workers expressed concerns about the complex citizenship process, the high cost and limited number of experts available to help, especially in rural areas, said Garret Dolan, senior manager of corporate social responsibility at Tyson.

As an extension of the program, Tyson is working with Arkansas Immigrant Defense, awarding the nonprofit an 18-month grant to help with advice, outreach and legal services. Dolan did not say how much the grant was.

"Our goal is to help as many team members as possible while we get a better understanding of their specific needs," he wrote in an email Friday.

Immigration law is complicated and there is much confusion over how it works, according to the American Immigration Council. The process is tricky without an attorney because the clients seeking relief may speak little to no English or have limited access to a computer, said Beth Zilberman, a law professor and director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. There are not a lot of legal services available for immigrants either, especially in rural areas.

"The work is incredibly important because a lot of people are eligible for different statuses, but just don't know about them," Zilberman said.

Many forgo expensive legal help. Attorney fees can be hundreds or even thousands of dollars, excluding general application fees. Meatpacking workers on average make less than $14 an hour in Arkansas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"It's just out of reach for a lot of folks," said Stephen Coger, lead attorney and executive director at Arkansas Immigrant Defense.

The nonprofit, based in Springdale, has been offering free legal services, education and expertise to immigrants and refugees in Northwest Arkansas since 2015.

Dolan said that can mean answering basic questions, filing paperwork to become legal citizens or helping workers with more significant legal issues.

With Tyson's grant, Coger said the nonprofit is able to expand its services by opening a small office and hiring a full-time worker to be near Tyson employees in Berryville and Green Forest.

Dolan said he was unsure of how many workers will use the pilot program, but "my personal hope is that over 100 team members will come forward and ask for help to become citizens."

"One of the really cool things" about this effort is that it brings attorneys to an area where representation is scarce, Zilberman said.

Workers don't have to drive hours away or coordinate car rides with friends for legal help, she said.

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