What migrant farmworkers need at day’s end: A decent, safe, affordable place to sleep

Arguments that migrant farmworker children are being deprived of an education because of California Office of Migrant Services eligibility rules related to migrant housing make no sense and miss the point about the need for safe and affordable housing for all farm workers.

Worse, these claims pit farmworker families against others, forcing them to fight over inadequately funded housing, rather than taking a constructive approach to solve real problems.

I know because I have worked for California Rural Legal Assistance Inc., representing low-income and farmworker families in housing and civil rights cases for more than 30 years. I have seen firsthand the lack of affordable housing and the importance of a housing inventory that is designed and preserved for migrant farmworkers. There are few programs available for farmworkers, fewer for migrant farmworkers.

The state migrant housing centers are structurally and conceptually designed for seasonal occupancy, 180 days plus extensions depending on peak season work. They have eligibility rules to preserve them for migratory workers.

Eligible farmworkers must derive at least half of their household income from farm labor, have a job offer in agricultural employment, must have worked in agricultural labor requiring round trip travel exceeding 100 miles per day, so that they could not return to their residence within the work day, and have resided with their immediate family outside a 50 mile radius of the migrant center for three of the preceding six months.

These rules ensure that residents are engaged in farm labor and preserve housing for farmworkers who must travel long distances from their home base to work.

Eliminating the requirement that farmworkers are migratory, as critics urge, could destroy the special housing program for migrant farmworker families, depriving them of much-needed housing. It would do nothing to address the need for decent, safe and affordable farmworker housing.

Housing for minimum wage workers in rural areas is hard to find. It is harder to find for farmworkers, and hardest of all for migrant families who travel long distances to labor in the fields.

Most farmworkers overpay rent and live in crowded housing or in dwellings euphemistically called unconventional. Unconventional means sleeping under trees, in cars, or squeezed into rooms in old motels, rundown trailers or worse.

They live in polluted and disadvantaged communities and face social and environmental risks in neighborhoods that lack sewers and potable water. They face housing discrimination and exploitation, exposure to pesticides, and discriminatory land use and planning that deprives them of the opportunity for housing to meet their needs. They too face eviction and firing if they have the temerity to complain.

State-funded migrant centers exist to serve the special need for affordable housing for migrants, who must move long distances from their primary residences to eke out a living from their labor. Migrant housing centers provide shelter during peak harvest seasons in agricultural regions throughout the state, and have eligibility rules to preserve the housing for migrant farmworkers precisely so that it is available when it is most needed.

Critics wrongly argue that the rules somehow prevent children from going to school year-round. Migrant children always have faced educational challenges that school and state educational programs have failed to adequately address, but the housing rules do not affect the quality of education.

I represent people who fear losing housing because of a half-baked idea, seemingly guided by emotion, not facts. They need migrant child education to do its job and the state to implement its full complement of housing programs for all farmworkers.

Ilene J. Jacobs is director of Litigation, Advocacy & Training for California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.