AUSTIN (Texas) AMERICAN-STATESMAN

March 7, 2017

 

Texas lawmakers seek momentum for farmworker housing bills

 

By Jeremy Schwartz - American-Statesman Staff

Last summer, Severiano Gutierrez and Dagoberto Lopez, two farmworkers who live in the Rio Grande Valley, arrived in the small northeastern Texas town of Crockett for the watermelon harvest.

But when they got to the house where a labor contractor had arranged for them to live for the next two months, they found empty window frames without glass or screens, weeds growing into a second-floor living area, and an open-air toilet.

The men said they often are provided housing that’s in terrible shape as they follow fruit and vegetable harvests across the state. But they had never seen anything like what they encountered in Crockett.

“They treat us like we are animals, and that is not OK,” Gutierrez said.

The men did not know it at the time, but such conditions violate a state law that officials rarely enforce.

Though state law requires that facilities intended to house migrant farmworkers be inspected and licensed, meeting minimum standards of cleanliness and safety, a 2016 American-Statesman investigation found that Texas’ unfunded inspection program ensures licensed housing for just a tiny fraction of farmworkers. Most housing facilities provided for workers, such as those in Crockett, are well off of inspectors’ radars.

In 2015, Texas spent less than $2,500 to conduct about 40 inspections of housing facilities provided by growers and labor contractors, most clustered in cotton-growing regions of the Panhandle. As a result, an estimated 9 in 10 Texas migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed housing that meets minimum health and safety standards required by state and federal law.

Gutierrez and Lopez were at the Capitol on Monday to speak in favor of a series of bills that would overhaul and strengthen oversight of farmworker housing in Texas.

Senate Bill 1025, filed by State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, and House Bill 2365, filed by State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, call for stricter housing inspections, tougher penalties for violators, and enhanced community outreach to growers and farmworkers in the state in hopes of uncovering unlicensed housing.

“It is time for the state of Texas to be dragged into the 21st century,” said Rodríguez, who was a migrant farmworker himself five decades ago. “Hopefully we will be able to have a responsive Legislature.”

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, co-author of the Senate bill and also a former migrant farmworker, said the state needs to do a better job.

“It’s amazing that here we are in 2017 and we are still not inspecting housing for farmworkers to provide a a safe place to live,” he said. “We have failed in that respect.”

The Statesman investigation found that other states provide far more resources to inspect farmworker housing and uncover facilities operating without licenses.

For example, in 2015 Michigan spent $1.15 million on farmworker housing inspections; Florida spent $828,000.

The Texas bills don’t call for the Legislature to come up with any new money to fund more aggressive inspections, something Rodríguez has said might be untenable in the current climate. Instead, they require the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to dedicate any penalties the department collects toward the inspection efforts. Rodríguez also intends to require the department to funnel the money it raises from licensing fees — $10,250 in 2016 — into inspection efforts.

Daniela Dwyer, head of the farmworker program at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, said department officials in recent months have met with advocates to discuss plans for better outreach to the farmworker community.

“We need to make sure all of the housing farmworkers live in right now … is found and inspected so people have a decent place to live,” she said.

In many cases, migrant farmworkers are reliant on growers or contractors for housing since there are few short-term rental properties available in rural areas; but Dwyer said many are afraid to complain about poor conditions for fear they could lose their jobs.

Dwyer, who represents farmworkers in lawsuits against housing providers, said she has met with workers who have been forced to sleep in their clothes and wrap duct tape around their ankles and wrists to prevent bugs and animals from crawling “into their orifices.”

Gutierrez and Lopez ultimately decided not to live in the Crockett house, preferring to lose out on the harvest season rather than put up with the unlivable conditions. That same year they spent nearly two months at a house in Premont where about eight men were forced to sleep on the floor, also in violation of state law.

“There are houses that are really almost falling down, but you have to stay there because there is no other place to go,” Gutierrez said.