HOUSING & SAFETY TOP WISH LIST FOR MIGRANT LABOR by Mitch E. Perry

02/07/06

State legislators on a commission studying migrant farmworker issues finalized a set of recommendations Monday that, if approved by the full legislature, would go a long way toward improving working conditions for migrant workers. But members of the commission on both sides of the political aisle say that some of the measures included in the report may have a hard time being implemented because of political fears about providing government help for undocumented workers.

One of the many proposals in the set of recommendations includes providing Florida’s Health Insurance Program for children – Kid Care – to the children of migrant and seasonal laborers. But Dave Aronberg , a Democratic state Senator from Greenacres, says all issues regarding government funding for undocumented workers is problematic (roll tape#1 o.q

"A lot of these issues depend on the Federal Government. What is their immigration status going to be, and the Federal Government is debating it right now, so I think whether we're going to provide extra benefits to workers who are undocumented will depend on whether the Federal Government changes their immigration status, and we won't know that probably until the session begins in March. If the Federal Government gives us some guidance in that area then we can move ahead with it, but it's definitely a tough sell to provide any financial benefits to people who are here illegally even though they're hard workers who keep our economy going."

The Co-Chairman of the Joint Legislative Commission on Migrant and Seasonal Labor, Republican JD Alexander of Lake Wales, told the Palm Beach Post, about farm workers that “we have a great responsibility to them, but politically, I think a large part of my district would not approve of benefits to non-citizens."

The plan calls for spending $20 million dollars to create affordable housing, increase inspections of field safety conditions, and pass a law requiring seat belts in vans that carry workers to the fields.

Margarita Romo is the director of Farm Workers Self Help in Pasco County.

She has been one of several farm worker advocates who have been meeting with the Commission over the past few months.(roll tape#2 o.q.

�I think Senator Alexander made it quite clear. He understands from a human point of view what should be, and then he also understands politically what is, and so we have to find a way to bring that closer in so that we do take care of the people that are working in our fields. Because, true, his district would probably not approve of benefits to undocumented people, however, who is hiring them?

Many of the proposals recommended by the commission are non-controversial, and should benefit migrant workers tremendously. Democratic State Senator Dave Arongberg mentions 2 such proposals, one being requiring seat belts in vans, that has strong Republican support (roll tape#3 o.q.

�The seat belt law would requre seat belts in all the vans that transport migrant farm workers. It's one of those policies where you scratch your head and say, we don't have that law already? It tried to pass last year but it got held up in the house, and this year I am optimistic that it will pass. Another measure I think will pass will be to increase funding for the pesticide inspectors. There have been some horrific examples of children born without limbs because their mother worked in the fields when they were pregnant and there was lax supervision over the use of pesticides, and that can be remedied by just funding the agencies to actually inspect these fields. Right now we don't have enough inspectors, and the fines are not punitive enough and so there's a lot of questions about levels of compliance."

Both Senator Alexander and the Commission’s Co-Chair, Winter Haven State Republican Representative Baxter Troutmas – say they do NOT believe state money should go directly to illegal migrants. But they DO support state funding to nonprofits that provide health care and other services to farmworkers and their families.

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Governor Bush also says that Federal law limits the amount of money available to spent on undocumented immigrants, but says the state needs to make exceptions when it comes to making preparations for hurricanes. Again, Democratic State Senator Dave Aronberg (roll tape#4 o.q.

"Making sure that there's someplace for them to go, whether you're documented or not - if you're here and you're working you have a right to be treated fairly and you should be able to have safe shelter from the hurricanes. Now beyond that, it's a tougher question, whether you should get additional benefits. That's a tougher issue because even though you're working here if you are breaking the law there's not a lot of tolerance for giving those folks extra benefits, and that is why we need the Federal Government to clarify their immigration status. Because they are working, they are contributing to our economy, but their immigration status is often uncertain."

While speaking with WMNF, Senator Aronberg frequently said that the Federal Government can and should pass legislation regarding immigrations in the next few months, and then state legislature can follow suit. But there is widespread disagreement among the Republicans in Washington over immigration issues, so the reliance on the feds may not settle anything.

Farmworker Activist Margarita Romo said that ALL of the proposals in the Recommendation are critical for the needs of migrant farm workers and their families, but she says she is realistic about what can be accomplished politically. She says its taken years for something as basic as requiring seat belts in vans to become potential law (roll tape#5 o.q.

"When you think about the fact that we're asking for seat belts, and I was saying to someone the other day, I think a lot of people don't understand that most of these vans don't even have seats so I believe that we're getting a big, and wonderful thing when this transportation and safety belt passes because it's going to give the farm workers at least a quality of life when they go from home to work. Because most people have to stand up or sit on a brick or whatever, to get to their place of work, which could be as far away as three hours. So the fact that they're going to have a seat to sit in is tremendous."

One issue mentioned in a draft report of proposed recommendations, considering allowing undocumented workers the chance to get a Drivers License, appears to have no support in the Committee. 2 years ago Governor Jeb Bush suggested he might support such a proposal.

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