An intrepid lawyer-researcher at Cornell University takes a pragmatic approach to the challenges faced by immigrants, migrant farmworkers, and people with low incomes.

Justice for Marginalized Communities

By Jackie Swift

More than 50 percent of New York State farmworkers are undocumented, and a significant number of them are children and youth under the age of 21. Many of these young people are living on dairy farms, working long, grueling hours for low pay, says Beth Lyon, clinical professor of law at Cornell University Law School.

“These kids have been forced to leave their countries, generally because of extreme family poverty or targeting by gangs, and sometimes because of neglect or abuse,” Lyon explains. “They cross dangerous borders, run the gamut of immigration detention, and end up on a dairy farm in Upstate New York. They’re working a very tough job, and many of them are coping with active removal proceedings against them by the immigration authorities at the same time.”

Lyon, who is a practicing deportation defense lawyer on the Cornell Law faculty, supervises law students in a teaching law office. With her guidance, students help these undocumented immigrant children and youth avoid deportation. “The law students are incredibly creative, hardworking, and motivated,” Lyon says. “And through different legal gambits they usually succeed in getting their clients on a path to citizenship.”

Training students and working on inspiring cases bring her joy, Lyon says, but just as important, her position as a clinical professor allows her the time and support to reflect on her work and to carry out research. She grounds her scholarship in areas of immediate relevance to her community partners, giving priority to migrant rights, access to justice, and clinical legal education.

Currently Lyon is deep into a project looking at the medical situation of migrant youth and the social determinants of health. She has joined with two researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine — MacKenzi N. Preston, Clinical Pediatrics, and Research Associate Faten Taki, Anesthesiology — as well as an interprofessional group of law and medical students. Using Lyon’s case files, the researchers want to establish a process for collaboration between legal services lawyers and medical experts to analyze the situation of child and youth farmworkers from a health perspective.

“The team will be looking at the ways legal services lawyers gather health information from their clients and how that could be improved,” she explains. “The goal is to understand the situation better because there’s very little information available about hired child farmworkers, who are virtually all undocumented immigrants.”

The researchers consulted closely with an ethics expert at Cornell Law and with the Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is tasked with ensuring the rights and welfare of human research subjects are protected. “We had to figure out how to ethically use information about this vulnerable population,” Lyon says. “These are unaccompanied minors. The immigration system doesn’t provide them with free lawyers, let alone guardians. They often have no one to look to for help in the U.S., aside from their employers. So as their lawyers, we not only protect their information as a matter of professional responsibility, but we often also play an outsized role in determining their futures.”

Once the researchers have worked through Lyon’s caseload files, they intend to share the format with other practitioners who have access to similar populations. “We want to recruit others into the study, to help them pull information out of their case files, as well, so that we can start to look for patterns,” Lyon explains.

In 2016, with support from what is now Cornell’s David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, Lyon started another interprofessional program when she joined with John McKinley, Accounting, to create the Low-Income Taxpayers Law and Accounting Practicum (LITLAP). The program consists of a two-semester cycle. McKinley teaches a course in low-income taxpayer policy in the fall of the year. In the spring, under the auspices of the Law School, accounting and law students who are part of LITLAP offer tax return support to Lyon’s clients and to farmworkers through the Cornell Farmworker Program. They also travel to Alaska to assist low-wage fishing and Indigenous communities, and offer services to low-income people in the Ithaca, New York, community where Cornell’s main campus is located.

Lyon and McKinley are now writing a paper about LITLAP and the importance for law and accounting students of working collaboratively in a setting that offers interprofessional training as part of the academic curriculum. “We are asking what the pedagogy for interprofessional training looks like,” Lyon says. “What are the goals and methods?”

As part of their research, Lyon and McKinley carried out a survey of clinical law professors across the country to find out how many of them integrated accounting into their curriculum. “Many integrate social work or psychology or even medicine, but very few are finding ways to work with accounting faculty,” Lyon says. “We also found that there are almost no programs like LITLAP.”

Along with research stemming from her practical work, Lyon carries out more theoretical projects. She recently coauthored a book chapter with Marleny Sis Chén, a public defender and scholar from Guatemala, about language access to justice — how governments ensure that people who don’t speak the official language of a country can still access services, such as signing up for a business license or defending their case in court.

“No society is doing it very well,” Lyon says. “In wealthy countries, like the United States, most non-official languages are spoken by immigrants, and they don’t have the political power to insist upon access. In Guatemala, where the most frequently spoken unofficial languages are Indigenous, you find that elders, women, and children can’t access formal education and therefore never learn the colonial language — in this case, Spanish. All across the world, it’s an issue that governments are disincentivized to address.”

Recently, Lyon became interested in the impact of anti-foreigner hate speech on social media. She began a new project — with co-Primary Investigators Gilly Leshed, senior lecturer in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, Marten van Schijndel, assistant professor in the Department of Linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences, Kham Chau, former senior Lyft software engineer; and former Cornell students Pranoto Iskandar, LL.M. ’18, and Lily Pagan ’20 — to track xenophobic speech on Twitter. Called the Xenophobia Meter Project, it aims to explore the current status of information science in monitoring social media for xenophobic speech.

Working with Mozilla’s Fix the Internet incubator and Cornell Hack for Impact, the team members developed a methodology for evaluating tweets based on levels of pro- or anti-foreigner sentiment, Lyon says. Their ultimate goal is to make the data open access and to provide a website to globally monitor Twitter, showing in real time the levels of xenophobia associated with tweets coming from each country.

“We see xenophobia going unchallenged at all levels of society, from racist politicians to supervisors who use anti-immigrant slurs in the workplace.”

“We see xenophobia going unchallenged at all levels of society, from racist politicians to supervisors who use anti-immigrant slurs in the workplace,” Lyon says. “The Xenophobia Meter will be a check for responsible policymakers to see what kinds of things people in their country are saying about immigrants. We also hope it will be a resource for researchers and journalists, and an affirmation for immigrants that says, ‘This kind of speech is wrong, and we condemn it.’”

Lyon’s experiences as a child, moving back and forth between the United States and other countries while her father pursued academic research, drew her to working with immigrants. “I had a more privileged migration experience than the farmworkers I collaborate with now have, but it opened my eyes to the very different lives people lead when they come and go from a society,” she says.

Later, as a high school student, she translated documents for immigration advocates who were representing people fleeing Cuba for the United States. “It stuck with me,” she says. “I went to law school to support communities in that way. Practicing law is a very effective way to be able to provide concrete allyship. It allows me to say to a community, ‘I work with these fantastic law students; we have the privilege of taking legal action. Is there any way we can be of use?’”

Beth Lyon, Cornell University, Law

Originally published on the Cornell Research website. All rights are reserved. For information regarding legal use or to request permissions, please email research@cornell.edu.

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