May 5, 2005


Pro-farmworker measures stalled

Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau

TALLAHASSEE To farmworker advocates, the idea behind the bill seems simple: Require vans that transport migrant workers to have seat belts.

But in Tallahassee, things are rarely that simple.

That bill and another that would make it easier for children of undocumented immigrants to attend Florida colleges and universities are struggling, while a bill that would prohibit state financial aid for foreign students is moving along.

After last year's crash near Fort Pierce that killed nine migrant workers and seriously injured 10 others, social services advocates thought measures to help migrant workers and their families would coast through the legislature this year.

But the only farmworker issue that has rolled through this year was the appointment of George Pantuso to the Florida Citrus Commission.

Pantuso is the owner of Circle H Citrus the grove where the Fort Pierce migrants were working and the van they were traveling home in that day. The U.S. Department of Labor wants to fine Pantuso for twice failing to provide "safe transport vehicles," but he is appealing. The first fine was for the fatal April 1, 2004, crash, and the second was for another case two weeks later.

Pantuso, nominated by Gov. Jeb Bush to the Florida Citrus Commission, did not disclose that information during his appointment process, according to a Senate summary of nominees. Yet Pantuso, who could not be reached for comment late Wednesday, cleared the Ethics and Elections Committee, and the Senate approved him without debate this week.

Farmworker advocates are finding that passing farmworker protection bills is much harder.

"Farmworkers shouldn't be different than anybody else," said Margarita Romo, a Dade City woman who has helped migrants there for more than three decades. "Why is everything so hard for us?" The bill that has them most upset is HB 1059, which would require seat belts in farm labor vans and call for state inspections to keep them up to date.

The bill cleared the Agriculture Committee, but not before Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach, who has worked in the farming industry for decades and still owns groves in Indian River and St. Lucie counties, added an amendment that would require those seat belts to be used. The amendment would limit the ability of farmworkers to sue if they are injured in a crash.

"If people don't use the seat belts, why go through the trouble of putting them in there?" Poppel said. "This is about personal responsibility."

Bill sponsor Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, said the amendment did much more than that, inadvertently shielding manufacturers of vehicles from lawsuits if their vehicles prove faulty.

Meanwhile, a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities seems stalled in the Senate.

The bill (HB 119) would allow Florida high school graduates who don't have legal residency but who have been in the country for at least three years and who guarantee that they will become U.S. citizens to attend state colleges and universities at the in-state tuition rate. Only the top 2,000 students in the state who fall under its requirements would qualify for in-state tuition.

The Senate version of the bill is stalled before a committee, and House sponsor Juan Zapata, R-Miami, worries that the "anti-immigrant hysteria" that is sweeping the state and country will help kill the bill.

Yet a bill that would prohibit any state money from going to foreign students at Florida colleges and universities stands a good chance of passing.

The bill would divert nearly $8 million from students studying at Florida colleges and universities under student visas to in-state residents.

Farmworker advocates view the bill as yet another affront to their rights in Florida, a state that depends so heavily on migrant labor to fuel the agriculture business.

The bill was passed the House 98-13 Monday and is awaiting a hearing on the Senate floor.

That despite a Senate staff analysis that found the bill may not even stand up in court.

According to the analysis, foreign students may be protected under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants equal protection under the law. The state may not be able to restrict citizens of other countries from receiving state assistance when residents of other U.S. states remain eligible.

"This bill may be constitutionally suspect under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution," the analysis reads.