Two cities reaching out to migrant workers

By Thomas R. Collins, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2003

 

WEST PALM BEACH -- West Palm Beach and Lake Worth leaders have vowed to take sharper

aim at hardships faced by migrant workers within their borders, a problem that has traditionally

elicited little more than a wink and a nod.

 

Partly in response to The Palm Beach Post's recent series "Modern-Day Slavery," which described

inhumane living and working conditions of migrants, West Palm Beach officials said they plan more

inspections of migrant housing. In Lake Worth, Mayor Rodney Romano plans a regional summit on

migrant-worker issues. And he said he'll pressure state and federal lawmakers to pass laws granting

migrant workers some kind of legal status.

 

West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, who chaired a subcommittee on farmworker housing when

she joined the Florida House of Representatives in 1986, has deployed city Planning Director Roxanne

Manning to tackle the issue. Manning said the city will step up inspections of migrant housing, crack

down on criminals who prey on vulnerable migrants and examine zoning issues more closely.

City staff members will get new assignments and training on migrant issues.

 

"We need to let them know that we're here to serve them and not send them back home,"

Manning said. The first meeting is scheduled for Jan. 6.

 

Frankel said it's not as simple as enforcing codes and kicking out migrant workers from their crowded homes.

 

"In trying to help folks, you don't want to have a situation where they're displaced

and have no place to go," Frankel said. "You have a situation where you're between a rock and a hard place."

 

Romano said The Post's series motivated him to finally act on a plan for a summit on farmworker

issues among local leaders, farm owners, and state and federal legislators. He plans to organize

the event probably by the spring.

 

He wants farm owners to assume a greater role in fixing the problem of unlicensed, unsafe and

unsanitary housing conditions.

 

"We've got to get to these farm owners and say, 'You've got to take some responsibility,' " he said.

He added "dormitory-style" housing for migrant workers may be part of the cure for the unhealthy

conditions many now endure.

Romano said he'll propose a resolution that lawmakers grant legal status to migrant workers, a proposal

similar to one recently floated by Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. The resolution, scheduled

for a vote in January, will be sent to state and federal legislators and President George Bush, Romano said.

 

"Just ask yourself what is in America's interest -- I don't think the laws that say these people should be

rounded up and thrown out meet our needs," Romano said. "The truth is we need them here and we

need to have some realistic way to have them here."

 

Communication barriers

Romano's city is an epicenter for farmworkers -- it has a census count of 35,000 people but has an

estimated migrant population of 5,000 to 10,000. The city recently created a special code-enforcement

team to tackle the toughest migrant-worker housing cases.

 

"Lake Worth for the slumlords has been like Dodge City," Romano said.

 

Romano and Frankel have some support among their constituents.

 

Jack Hairston -- who lives in West Palm Beach's Northwood neighborhood, which has a high

concentration of migrant workers -- takes Guatemalan farmworkers to doctor appointments and

helps them fix problems their hapless slumlords won't.

 

More frequent code and health inspections are crucial, he said. That involves bridging a

serious language and cultural gap.

 

"All of the city and county departments need to have extremely fluent Spanish-speaking people,"

he said. "We need to be able to educate so that they know what needs to be done in America."

 

He offered this example of a basic problem: Many migrant workers are responsible for paying their

electric bill, but can't read the paperwork because it's in English. The result: Every month, they have

to pay not only their regular bill, but also a late fee and a reconnection charge.

 

The Palm Beach County Health Department recently created a cultural communications task force to

brainstorm for ways to get its message across to minority communities.

 

The task force, which first met in October, has recommended using pictures and cartoons,

communicating through church leaders, and having students relay messages to Mom and

Dad since they usually speak better English than the parents.

 

Agency resources limited

That's about the best the department can do with its resources, health department director

Dr. Jean Malecki said. Inspecting every dwelling licensed as migrant housing twice every 12 weeks,

as required by state law, is "not realistic based on the resources we have," she said. T

he department inspects migrant housing about twice a year, Malecki said. The health department

gets a majority of its money from the state and federal governments.

 

Even if housing problems are ferreted out, that will only do so much.

 

"You can tear down the building," she said, "but you don't tear down the society."