Posted on Fri, Oct. 17, 2003
HERALD WATCHDOG | FIELDS OF DESPAIR
Bill offers migrants chance for new lives
BY RONNIE GREENE
HOPEFUL FUTURE: Arturo Rubin, a Mexican farmworker, picks cucumbers in a field in Homestead. NURI VALLBONA/HERALD STAFF
More than half of Florida's farmworkers labor in the shadows, working in an underground industry that brings food
to dinner tables but leaves the sweat-soaked laborers vulnerable to abuse.
But now those workers, and others around the country, may be handed a way to work their way into the light.
Key U.S. Congress members have filed a bill in Washington that, if passed, could transform the lives
of the men and women who pluck the country's fruit and vegetables. It could also reshape the industry itself.
An estimated 100,000 undocumented farmworkers in Florida, and 500,000 nationwide, could gain legal status
by working in agriculture over several years under the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act.
''It's a huge empowerment of the most poorly paid and the most exploited people in the American workforce,''
said U.S. Rep. Howard Berman, D-California, a cosponsor of the bill.
A recent Herald series, Fields of Despair, detailed how workers in America's second richest agricultural state
have suffered sweatshop hours, slum housing, poverty pay and criminal abuse.
U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Florida, cited The Herald's report as the bill was introduced in Congress last month.
''This series substantiates what we have all known anecdotally for years,'' Graham said.
''Farmworkers in our country -- those who are legal citizens or residents of the United States,
as well as those who are undocumented -- live in uninhabitable housing, are transported
in vehicles that do not meet basic safety standards, and are subject to predatory lending practices
that require payment of as much as 100 percent interest,'' Graham said.
Advocates won't know for sure how many of Florida's estimated 100,000 unauthorized farm hands would apply
-- or qualify -- under the law. Nor do they expect it to eliminate all abuses.
''This is 100,000 workers that can come out of the shadows, live a life of some security,
not be fearful of being apprehended and sent back, not having to pay the coyote these extortionate fees,
'' said Rob Williams, Director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Tallahassee,
referring to the transporters paid to bring illegal immigrants into the United States.
Some of the workers who have toiled in Florida's fields for years say they would benefit from the protections.
''Not having these papers keeps us in jobs that pay very little,'' said South Dade's Elvira Carvajal,
who has worked at farms and nurseries for 17 years. ``We work hard, underneath the sun, f
or a low salary. So that would be a way to find a better paying job.''
Mexican-born Carvajal said she has already earned legal status.
Thousands of migrants cross the U.S. border illegally seeking cash in the fields. They then pay coyotes
thousands to ferry them in tint-covered vans to farm states like Florida.
The workers, desperate for cash but unlikely to complain about mistreatment, become easy targets.
Scofflaw crew bosses cheat their pay, charge high fees for shabby housing or bibill exorbitant interest on loans.
Five federal prosecutions since 1996 have sent Florida farm bosses or smugglers to prison for abusing
or enslaving workers, and four of the cases involved primarily immigrant victims.
Advocates expect opposition to the bill in Congress from a cluster of politicians who traditionally oppose measures
that could be viewed as giving amnesty to undocumented residents.
Bill sponsors say this is no simple amnesty, but a one-time legalization earned only after years of work.
According to the Justice Project's Williams:
• To qualify for temporary residency, an immigrant would have to have completed at least 100 days
of farm work over 12 months during an 18-month window that ended Aug. 31, 2003. The worker would have
to meet other requirements as well, such as not having been convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors.
• To become a permanent resident, workers must complete at least 360 days of farm work over six years.
That requirement couldn't be met simply by working 360 days in one year.
The law requires at least 75 days of agricultural work in each of three years,
ensuring the industry has a steady supply of laborers.
To qualify, workers will have to provide payroll or other work records. If those records are not available,
they may be able to provide other evidence, experts say.
Advocates are hopeful they'll gain approval by session's end in November.
''We're going to move it very hard,'' said Utah Rep. Chris Cannon, one of the Republican cosponsors.
``We have lots of support, but this is a very complex environment.''
Giving workers protections will help ensure the nation's agricultural workforce -- and therefore, its food supply
-- remains strong, Cannon said.
''You wouldn't have milk or pork or chicken or turkey or strawberries or green peppers'' without the laborers, he said.
''It's also just a human thing,'' Cannon said. ``You've got people here living in difficult circumstances,
abused by their employers perhaps, certainly abused by criminals among them.''
The bill has been embraced by two groups often at bitter odds: The United Farm Workers and
National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also have endorsed the proposal.
And 50 Florida-based groups recently sent a letter of support to Congress.
''We know that there are certain instances where workers are not legal and are taken advantage of,'' said Casey Pace,
a spokeswoman for the Florida Citrus Mutual trade association.
``It will help ensure that we have a stable workforce.''
Advocates say the law allows workers to move from employer to employer,
so they don't have to stay in an abusive farm job just to gain status.
The bill is ''a delicate, sensitive compromise,'' Berman said.
Posted on Fri, Oct. 17, 2003
Bill called boon for both sides
BY RONNIE GREENE
While advocates hail the agricultural jobs bill for giving legal rights to farmworkers,
the nation's influential growers would benefit, too.
The farming industry would prosper in at least two ways:
• The Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act requires that applicants work in agriculture over a number of years
-- ensuring U.S. farmers a steady workforce.
• The bill helps the industry reach a second goal: More easily importing foreign workers under a separate federal program.
That program, called H-2A, allows growers to temporarily import agriculture workers from other countries.
But the process is ''slow, bureaucratic and inflexible,'' the American Farm Bureau says.
Under the bill, growers would go through the process with fewer barriers.
Growers also won at least a short-term guarantee that minimum wages for guest workers won't increase for three years.
In Florida, the wage is roughly $7.70 an hour.
Some worker advocates fear growers will ultimately seek to expand the program, which has had its own set of problems.
When the sugar industry imported cane cutters from Jamaica and the West Indies a decade ago,
critics alleged the industry provided low pay for brutal work.
The American Farm Bureau makes clear reforming the program is key to its support of the bill.
The Bureau seeks to ''provide one opportunity for illegal farm workers to earn resident status if they keep working in agriculture,
so that farm employers may adjust and transition into the reformed H-2A program,'' its web site says.
''Yes, the growers are betting this would even lead to an expanded H2-A program. We're not so sure,''
said Rob Williams, Director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project for Florida Legal Services.
``We think there's at least a chance that having the current workforce legalized will mean there won't be a need.''
Posted on Fri, Oct. 17, 2003
THE STORY SO FAR
The proposed bill in Congress comes after years of negotiations and follows a recent Herald investigation,
Fields of Despair, which found:
• Florida leads the nation in the number of farm labor crew bosses who have had licenses revoked because
they skirted laws or cheated workers.
• Five times since 1996, Florida labor bosses or smugglers have been prosecuted -- and imprisoned
-- for abusing or enslaving farmworkers.
• The Florida Legislature's House Committee on Agriculture, which helps shape state laws over the industry,
is stacked with politicians with powerful agricultural interests.