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Looking To Settle Down, Immigrant Farmworkers Face Housing Crisis

The rural areas in the U.S. where immigrant workers that pick crops like cotton and melons find work often lack the social services and affordable housing vital to integrating new arrivals into a community. That means many farmworker families end up in dilapidated buildings, which can come with health risks.

Migrant workers planting roots

Angel Castro’s old road is muddy and covered with flooded potholes. He lived here during the 1990s just behind a large John Deere store in Kennett, Mo.

“This is one of the trailer parks that rent to migrant people,” he says. “It’s not in the greatest shape, you know? But if you need a place to stay you have to do what you have to do.”

Dozens of trailers and campers sit on lots littered with plastic bottles and food wrappers. Large tires hold down roofs, siding is falling off the mobile homes and cracked windows are covered up with plastic. Castro says during growing season, these trailers pack in up to ten farmworkers.

“Right here, I think they charge you by the head,” he says. “It depends on how many people are staying in the trailer. I think it’s like $120 a month a person.”

Castro was born in Mexico but raised just across the border in Texas. His family spent summers chasing the watermelon crop from state to state as migrant farmworkers. Now, he has a job recruiting farmworkers’ kids to enroll in school programs.

“When we used to travel, we ran into some of those trailers, too,” Castro says. “My sister used to cry, ‘Oh look at the places we live in.’ And my dad would say, ‘It’s only a month. Just ride it out a month and we’ll be out of here.’”

Almost three-quarters of hired crop farmworkers don’t actually travel the country following the harvest, according to Department of Agriculture data. Rather than short-term migrants looking for seasonal work, many farmworkers are remaining in the U.S. longer and looking for a place to settle.

Housing options, funding limited

Generally there are three types of housing options for farmworkers: private housing like the trailers Castro lived in, employee housing provided by a landowner, and government-funded housing. 

“There is a big need across the country,” said U.S. Rural Housing Administrator Tony Hernandez. “There is probably more need than money we have.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture lends money through a federal program to build housing for farmworkers. Hernandez says it’s critical to provide housing for the people who help get Americans’ food to the table.

“It’s not that long ago farmworker housing was nonexistent in a lot of places,” he said. “People lived in their car. There was not a bathroom for places to have. This is really an effort to make safe and decent housing and better working conditions and housing is a big part of that.“

Hernandez says while federal loan programs have added to farmworker housing stock, there is stiff competition for loans and some projects don’t get funded immediately. The program is dependent on money allocated by Congress, which is in flux – from as much as $60 million to as little as $5 million in recent years.

Ultimately, where there isn’t local housing available, farmworkers often end up in off-the-grid shantytowns.

Health concerns, lack of inspections

“Farmworkers don’t make a lot of money. They don’t have a lot of options. The housing that they are able to find is often substandard,” said Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health at the advocacy group Farmworker Justice.

Farmworkers are often priced out of rural rental markets that lack the resources, infrastructure or desire to build affordable housing, Ruiz says, and many end up crammed into rundown trailer parks.

“You also see often overcrowding which can also be harmful psychologically,” she said. “It’s very stressful. It’s easier in overcrowded housing for diseases to spread.”

Tuberculosis, pesticide exposure and viral breakouts are a few of the more common threats facing farmworkers living in housing without adequate showers, ventilation and utilities. And these arrangements are common nationwide.

“Practically every state has a lack of enforcement,” says Moises Loza, the executive director of the Housing Assistance Council, which works to improve housing conditions in rural areas.

Enforcement of housing codes doesn’t happen often enough because of limited resources, Loza says. And you’re not going to hear the tenants raising a fuss about the conditions either.

“They’re uninformed about what rights they might have or what codes there are in housing,” Loza said. “But even if they did know, they’re also afraid of getting immigration after them.”

Seventy percent of U.S. farmworkers were born in Mexico and about half are undocumented, according to the Housing Assistance Council. Because immigration status complicates dealing with local authorities, Loza says the population is largely invisible.

‘You have to survive’

Angel Castro’s old trailer has been spiffed up and looks nicer than the ones rented to farmworkers in his old neighborhood. He says he was the first Mexican to move here. Now, he says, the trailer park is filling up with farmworkers from Central America without options

“When you don’t have the money or the means to get somewhere else or buy somewhere else, you do what you have to survive,” he said. “To live.”

Castro now lives with his family 10 miles away in a town with a burgeoning Hispanic population. He says he was fortunate to work his way out of the crop picking trade and the trailer park. But he says without education or enforcement of housing codes, the living conditions for the tenants who continue to work the fields will linger.

This story was reported as part of a fellowship with the Institute for Justice and Journalism.

Kristofor Husted is a senior reporter at KBIA in Columbia, Mo. Previously Husted reported for NPR’s Science Desk in Washington and Harvest Public Media. Husted was a 2013 fellow with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and a 2015 fellow for the Institute for Journalism and Justice. He’s won regional and national Edward R. Murrow, PRNDI and Sigma Delta Chi awards. Husted also is an instructor at the Missouri School of Journalism. He received a B.S. in cell biology from UC Davis and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University.
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