SANTA CRUZ (California) SENTINEL

August 6, 2017

 

Santa Cruz County advocates decry farm worker housing rule over effects on children

By Nicholas Ibarra

 

WATSONVILLE, CALIF. --- The daughter of two migrant farm workers, as a child Jasmin Fernandez spent half of each year attending school in Santa Cruz County, and half in Michoacan, Mexico.

“I had to struggle really, really hard for decent grades,” said Fernandez, 24, a psychology major at Sacramento State. “Both of my brothers got really terrible grades through no fault of their own, but because their housing situation was so unstable. We had to be constantly changing countries, schools, friendships.”

Fernandez, who spent half the year living in the state-subsidized Buena Vista Migrant Center in Watsonville, considers herself lucky.

After spending her senior year uninterrupted, living with relatives, Fernandez was able to graduate high school. Almost no one else from the Buena Vista center does.

More than 90 percent of the children of migrant farm workers drop out of high school, and those familiar with the Buena Vista Migrant center say there the rates are still worse.

“I’ve been going there for twenty years and I’ve never heard of a graduation other than of kids who are sent away,” said Ann Lopez, director of the nonprofit Center for Farmworker Families. “Not one.”

 

50 MILE RULE

Fernandez’s family didn’t leave their Watsonville housing each year by choice. The housing is only open during harvest season — May through November — and a state regulation known as the “50 mile rule” requires that residents move their families at least 50 miles away for three months or more during the off season.

The rule is in place to ensure that the state subsidized housing built for migrant farm workers was occupied by those who are “truly migrant families,” said Evan Gerberding, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Housing and Community Development, in a statement.

But advocates claim that while that criteria may have made sense decades ago when many more migrant workers were single men, it now stands in the way of the education of the 500 school-age children now living in 14 migrant housing centers throughout the state.

And when the Center for Farmworker Families surveyed residents at four migrant housing centers throughout the state, including the Buena Vista Center, 97 percent of respondents said they believed their children would do better in school were the 50 mile rule not in effect.

 

UNCLEAR HISTORY

The origins of the 50 mile rule are unclear.

None of the other states with migrant housing programs use the 50-mile rule as a requirement, according to Harry Snyder, an attorney and UC Berkeley lecturer who has joined the effort to change the regulation.

Gerberding said in a statement that her understanding is the state agency inherited the definition of a migrant farm worker from the Employment Development Department.

But advocates’ records act requests into its origins came up empty, according to Snyder and Lopez.

“There may have been a process, but it has been lost,” Snyder said.

 

ADVOCATES’ EFFORTS

On July 21, the Department of Housing and Community Development rejected a petition filed by the Center for Farmworker Families and a coalition of individuals and other groups that called for an exception to the 50 mile rule for families with school-age children.

In its rejection, the agency stated it is continuing to “receive and review stakeholder input” and that it is considering “legislative recourses” that “would have an inadvertent, but potentially positive impact on school-age children residing within the centers.”

Gerberding did not directly answer a question seeking clarification on what the agency is considering and was unavailable for further comment.

On Wednesday, Snyder filed a petition calling for a reconsideration.

Advocates say that because the 50 mile rule is not a law but the agency’s own regulation, it could be changed without legislation, which Gerberding confirmed, adding that the process would take 1-2 years.

At minimum, advocates say, the state should enact a waiver program for families with school age children who wish to keep their children in the same school during the off season.

“I think parents have a right to know their children can complete a year at the same school,” Lopez said. “It’s not working the other way.”

Previous efforts to question the rule were similarly unsuccessful, said Lauren Ornelas, Executive Director of the Food Empowerment Project, which joined the petition.

“It felt like they were stonewalling the issue,” Ornelas said. “After meeting after meeting, it was like ‘Where is the progress here?’ Nothing is happening.”

 

SPLIT SCHOOLING

Being forced to split her school year between Mexico and U.S. was “traumatizing,” Fernandez said.

“In both educational systems we were considered dumb because in Mexico we had an accent, in the U.S. we had an accent,” she said. “In both educational systems we struggled.”

She said she observed as other students from the migrant centers “fell through the cracks,” with many of the boys turning to drugs and gangs and the girls often becoming farm workers themselves or marrying at an early age.

Fernandez credits her own success to tendency toward shyness, an early infatuation with books and her parents’ push toward education.

“My mom always said that my education would be the only means of me escaping her doomed future — to work in the farms as a strawberry picker for the rest of her life,” Fernandez said.

She plans to apply to a graduate program in psychology and work toward a doctorate degree after which she hopes to conduct research on social justice.

“I do know that the odds are against me again, given that I have so many identities that are oppressed in this society,” Fernandez said. “But I’m still going to give it my best.”