Texas needs to make good on promise to migrant farm workers

rgz migrant housing 0039

A new stove was placed in the kitchen area of the two bedroom apartment shared by six adults and children, in O’Donnell, Texas. One of the state’s requirements is that a stove must have four working burners. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

In the run-up to the March primary the editorial board visited with the usual array of candidates. I was not a member of the board during the last presidential cycle, but I was not surprised to hear local and state candidates attempting to leverage the talking points of the nation’s presidential race on the left and the right.

I heard a lot, especially from conservatives, about how Texas and the nation just needs to free up capitalism and let businesses thrive with minimal regulations.  The rhetoric fits nicely with the Texas bootstrap work ethic, but in the broad brush of U.S. history, as they say, that dog just won’t hunt.

Remember, federal and state governments had to clean up and regulate the mess of the Industrial Revolution — one of the most innovative times in American history. By some measures American capitalism was at its apex.  The nation’s rapid technological advances also brought dangerous working conditions for adults and children, indentured servitude in textile mills, exploitative share cropping in the nation’s agricultural fields, chemical dumping of waste in our nation’s waterways. (As a side note, that economic engine also proved to be an incredible magnet for immigrants looking for opportunity, economic security and personal safety.)

Whatever your political position on unions, minimum wage laws, food regulations and environmental protections, the fact remains that these tools were created in response to very real problems. And those problems have not gone away.

Just look at this month’s investigative report on migrant farmworkers by American-Statesman reporter Jeremy Schwartz. Despite regulations approved and adopted by the Texas legislature, they are not being enforced as the spirit of the law intended. The result is a market place scenario where workers are used to produce food cheaply for the benefit of the economy and consumers, while workers are paid minimal wages, for seasonal work, which can create barriers to education and long-term economic stability. Is it more moral to subsidize farmers to keep consumer prices low or invest to  ensure that agricultural businesses do right by its workers or allow even more families to fall into poverty because of high food prices?

According to the investigation, Texas has issued no penalties since 2005 despite confirmed reports of substandard housing. And 9 in 10 migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed and inspected housing. Regulations without teeth are meaningless.

Yes, there is an argument to be had about illegal immigration pushing down wages — but when it comes to farming on a grand scale, this country has always over-relied on importing farm labor from abroad. From the slaves in the cotton fields to Chinese and Filipino workers in the early 1900s to Mexican migrant workers, who were brought to work in the 1930s (only to be deported during the Great Depression and then recruited again during WWII.)

In 2016, the marketplace needs to encourage innovation and set necessary boundaries for what our society will allow in terms of mutual obligations. We can argue about methods — incentives, punitive sanctions or social supports — but it doesn’t change government’s in policing the inevitable abuses that occur in the free market. Putting our heads in the sand while families live in unsafe and unsanitary living conditions is not an option. It is reassuring to see legislators like State Sens. Jose Rodriguez and Eddie Lucio, Jr., (both representing border areas) step forward to shine some light on the issue, but it is also disheartening to acknowledge the relative silence on the issue by our state’s leadership.

Spokesman John Wittman, responded for Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement this week: “Governor Abbott expects TDHCA to follow the statute set forth by the legislature and inspect any housing facility reported to be operating out of compliance with state law.” The offices of House Speaker Joe Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declined to comment.

So what is a migrant family to do if members find themselves renting housing without basic sanitation and such necessities as locking doors?

I tried to find a complaint hotline number for migrant labor housing in Texas via Google and after about an hour, I found the complaint number 1-877-724-5676 embedded in the Texas Administrative Code along with a Lubbock mailing address. Fortunately, this section of the code is also written in Spanish. The only other mention of this phone number by a state agency is by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, which is responsible for inspections and complaints. The word “complaint” appears nowhere on the English only web-site, which is mostly devoted to licensing requirements, with a line at the bottom that says: “Questions about inspections or issues at migrant labor housing facilities may be directed to Bradlee Dansbee at 1-877-724-5676 or 1-806-794-2105.”

Only the most savvy, English-speaking workers would be able to determine how to make a complaint — if they had access to the internet. That would, of course, also assume that they knew that the state has laws that should regulate housing conditions.

So, no, Abbott’s “expectations” that the code will be enforced is not enough, especially when Texas lawmakers have opted not to fund the program. It’s not reasonable to suggest that the state is actually enforcing a law that states, “A person may not establish, maintain, or operate a migrant labor housing facility without obtaining a license from the department.” The code leaves the collection of the up to  $200 per day penalty to county and district courts, but those courts can’t collect penalties that are never assessed.

With the next legislative session more than a year away, and most legislators and policy makers distracted by a national election cycle that has turned immigration into a dirty word, my hopes (which mirror the rest of the board’s) for more funding and more attention are limited. It will be up to lawmakers like Lucio and Rodriguez to persuade their colleagues to provide the political pressure to  give the TDHCA the funding, authority and the moral imperative to actually make a difference in the lives of the state’s migrant laborers. Migrant workers are not just confined to the Rio Grande Valley — agricultural counties in West Texas and the High Plains have high numbers as well, with limited housing.

This is a problem for all of Texas, which means that the solution should start with the Texas Legislature.