By DEBORA RUBI
School of Communication
University of Miami
The migrant worker community in Florida is often classified as the ‘invisible population’ of the state. They live in sequestered communities, isolated, and with little permanence.
According to the Florida Department of Health, 150,000 to 200,000 migrant workers work in the State of Florida. Migrant workers usually earn $7,000 a year for a single worker and $10,000 for a family.
Florida, along with California and Texas, is known as a “sending” state. Sending states are states where migrant workers usually begin and end their work. As such, it is very common that those with families leave their families in their sending state while they travel around the country. According to the U.S Department of housing, at least 50 percent of farm workers are here alone at an average age of 31 years old.
The Florida Department of Housing points out three obstacles to creating housing for migrant workers: the communities do not want the housing, it’s very difficult to find funds, and it’s difficult to cover the overhead costs once the workers move on to their next crop.
The program promoted by the Department of Health for migrant housing has provided 700 permits in 33 counties to house 43,000 migrant workers and their families in accordance to standards set by state law. The standards are oriented mainly at preventing disease and injury; so many amenities are not emphasized.
The camps are usually owned by farmers and for-profit persons. They are inspected by county health inspectors twice per quarter.
Private organizations have also gone through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to create subsidized housing for immigrant workers. The Everglades Community Association, for example, is a 120-acre community for migrant workers that includes three daycare centers, a church, a credit union and a store.
“They are quite privileged,” said Carmen Roqueta, executive director of Tenant Services.”They can cash their checks within the town and, in the store, they can find food from their home countries.”
The USDA provides subsidies for 410 of the 500 houses built. The rent of the workers is subsidized according to their yearly income.
“The rent will be fixed according to the income they make and the subsidies are in place before the building even occurs,” said Roqueta.
Families are required to pay 30 percent of their income on rent, which is priced at $650 a month. If 30 percent of their income is less than $650 then the subsidies would kick in, otherwise the tenants are expected to pay the entire rent.
“While most of their money comes from the government, not all is federal money,” said Roqueta. “Some also comes from the county and the state.”
With all the amenities present in the complex, the community becomes a second home for the people that find themselves so far from their families, decorating their houses and many of the community buildings to commemorate the homes they left behind.
To enter the program aspiring residents must apply and pay a $25to $50 fee. Then they have an interview before joining the waiting list for the program.
Housing for migrant workers is usually divided amongst family workers and single male unaccompanied workers. The latter are workers that come to find work in the state alone, whether they have a family back home or not. About 50 percent of migrant workers are here alone.
“They know where to find us,” said Roqueta. “They find us through word of mouth.”
The child development center found within the community is a part of the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which provides education to children throughout the state. The program is funded by state and local grants as well as United Way, corporations and community foundations.
The RCMA serves 75 children in Homestead and Florida City and over 8,000 children in 75 centers throughout the state.
The RCMA is only one of a variety of groups found throughout Florida to help the conditions of the state’s migrant workers.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is one of the largest groups aiding immigrant workers mainly of Hispanic descent — many of Mayan descent that do not speak fluent Spanish or English — and Haitian/Caribbean descent. The coalition tries to create cross ethnic ties to help the local communities.
With Southwest Florida being one of the epicenters of Florida’s agriculture with approximately 4,000 workers on the fields, the group is largely focus on work within the citrus and tomato harvests.
The group, however, focuses on wage and living conditions and leaves migrant housing to the government and for-profit organizations.
The Union of Immigrant Workers is another group dedicated to helping workers. This group is more specifically oriented to helping workers understand and protect their rights.
The Workers Center in Miami helps low-wage families through grassroots movements and alliances with other organizations. The group works with the We Count! group led by Levys Torres in Homestead.
The latest victory by the Workers Center was a wage settlement through the Miami-Dade County Commissioners to help undocumented workers gain their wages.
“In the past, workers could not complain because they risked harassment or being reported to the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” said Natalia Jaramillo, the communications associate for the Workers Center.
The settlement allowed for workers to claim their wages from their workers despite their legal status in the country.
“Migrant workers were not only able to gain their salaries, but they gained some respect from the community,” said Jaramillo.
Torres, director of We Count! in Homestead, helps to develop a sense of community. The members of We Count! find their own housing and are usually living six to seven people per household.
“Normally its people that already know each other or that have common acquaintances, that gather together in order to be able to pay,” said Torres.
Further north, there is a career center that helps to provide work as well as computer lessons. The English and computer lessons have been temporarily halted, but the members of We Count! Have computers available for those that have already learned to use them.
“Really our work is more oriented towards letting the workers know their rights through leadership lessons, as well as other resources,” said Torres.
The community in Homestead is diverse with people from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador among other countries. The workers are made up of families, as well as women and men that decide to come alone to work.
The Rural Housing Program also helps those in agriculture to find housing through loans and grant; however, many areas of Miami-Dade have become too developed to still be categorized as rural areas eligible for those grants.
These organizations and programs have done much to help the migrant workers that play a pivotal part in the American economy and culture. Problems persist, which is why many of these organizations continue to thrive, but at least workers can continue to find constant avenues to prevent further abuses.