Texas Senator: Farmworker Housing Licensed by State is ‘Unconscionable’

‘There was no room to walk or cook, but you had to stay because there was no place else to go,’ one migrant farmworker said.

Lawmakers and agricultural laborers gathered at the Capitol on Monday to announce legislation that would improve housing for the tens of thousands of migrant farmworkers in Texas, who often live without running water, ventilation or electricity.

Senator Jose Rodriguez stands behind a jar of dead scorpions gathered from infested farmworker housing.  Daniel Collins

“Over 50 years ago, I myself was a migrant farmworker, and I lived in chicken coops and cattle barns and other so-called housing,” said Senator Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, who co-authored Senate Bill 1025. “It is unacceptable and unconscionable that the state of Texas is still providing that type of housing.”

Migrant farmworkers, who earn poverty-level wages and relocate from harvest to harvest, depend on housing provided by their employers. There are more than 200,000 farmworkers in Texas, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health, although the exact number is hard to pin down because of the transitory, off-the-books nature of the work.

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The workers harvest mostly cotton, fruits and vegetables and play a key role in Texas’ vast agricultural sector.

Since 2005, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) has been tasked with licensing and inspecting the housing. But the state agency has never punished a single noncompliant facility and does not seek out clandestine housing, leaving nine in 10 workers in unlicensed lodging, according to a 2016 Austin American-Statesman investigation.

The September 2016, 1966 cover of the Observer, featuring labor marchers at the state Capitol.
The September 16, 1966 cover of the Observer, featuring labor marchers at the state Capitol. Read the archive.  Texas Observer archives

“We have an agency that is underfunded, understaffed, doesn’t do enforcement or impose sanctions,” said Rodriguez.

The fight for farmworkers’ rights in Texas stretches back decades: In 1966, the Observer reported on the historic strike and 491-mile march of South Texas melon pickers, a movement that led to Texas’ first statewide minimum wage.

SB 1025 and its identical companion, House Bill 2365, authored by Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, would require TDHCA to suspend licenses for severe violations, allow third parties to appeal decisions and standardize a complaint procedure. The bills would also ratchet up fees and mandate that the money go to enforcement, a strategy to pay for the program without having to ask for money from the Texas Legislature.

Daniela Dwyer, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, brought a jar of dead scorpions to Monday’s press conference. She said farmworker clients had brought her the arachnids from their infested housing. Dwyer called for worker outreach, saying, “In Texas, state law dictates protections for farmworkers, but workers don’t even know.”

Severiano Gutierrez, a migrant farmworker who harvested melons last summer in Jim Wells County, said he lived in a cinderblock house with nine men sleeping on the floor.

“There was no room to walk or cook,” he said. “But you had to stay because there was no place else to go.”

Gus Bova is a reporter-researcher at the Observer. He focuses on immigration, the U.S.-Mexico border and grassroots movements. Before the Observer, he worked at a shelter for asylum-seekers and refugees. You can contact him at [email protected]

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