Budget cuts could hamper civil rights, advocates say

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Capital News Service
LANSING – As Michigan’s budget woes continue, the Department of Civil Rights might face another round of cuts to an already shrunken agency, a move that could hurt civil rights in the state, according to the head of the Michigan Migrant Legal Assistance Project in Grand Rapids.
And Daniel Krichbaum, the interim director of the department said “We’re going to try and maintain our service levels. We only have a budget of about $13 million, and we’re going to try and save it.”
Rep. Fred Durhal, D-Detroit, said that cuts to all government agencies are hard to avoid.
“There were 3 percent cuts made in virtually every department in the general government budget which I chair,” Durhal said. “The budget which passed the House reflected that.”
The department handles complaints about discrimination, acts as a mediator among ethnic and cultural groups, and offers workshops about cultural sensitivity.
“Civil Rights is one of the departments that can least afford those cuts,” Durhal said.
Harold Core, the director of public affairs for the department, said that as it has lost funding, it’s had to set priorities on what services to keep.
“Because we are so small, you reach a point where some individuals in the department are the only ones who perform a certain function, and when you lose that person, you lose that function,” he said.
“Last year we lost around 22 percent of our staff,” he said.
Core said the agency lost 25 positions in the cut and that it currently has 98 employees.
Migrant Legal Assistance Project executive director Teresa Hendricks said that the department is the “only government agency that has done an investigation that shows where the real problems lie in the farm industry in Michigan.”
Her organization provides legal support for migrants in the state.
Hendricks referred to a recent Civil Rights Commission report that showed many problems with how migrant workers are treated in the state. The commission held farmworker forums in Oceana, Lenawee, Manistee, Berrien and Arenac counties.
“If anything, its work should be justified, and it should be given more money, not less because it is the group that outlined these problems in the state,” she said.
Hendricks said that the department performs an important function, acting as a mediator among the farming community, migrant workers and the government.
She said that without the department, it would “push our organization further and further into obscurity, along with the plight of the migrant workers and their employers.”
Core said part of the department’s trimming-down effort revolves around streamlining paperwork and processes involved with complaints.
Core also said more cuts could increase the time it takes to answer discrimination complaints.
“For a lot of people, when they come here, they can’t afford a private attorney,” he said. “It puts them in a situation where they can’t get access to any remedy for their situation.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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