- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

O’DONNELL, Texas (AP) - The farmworkers arrived in the spring of 2013 to harvest green chiles for $8 an hour and the promise of temporary housing in a building near the fields.

But when they showed up at the farm just south of Van Horn, operated by AJK Enterprises, workers said they had no alternative but to live in nearby shipping containers that lacked screens or ventilation, to shower with a bucket of cold water and to urinate and defecate in the brush. Some workers slept “in their cars or outside on the boards laid on top of car tires,” according to a lawsuit filed against the farm’s operators and settled last year.

Under state law, facilities intended to house migrant farmworkers - defined as agricultural laborers who leave their primary residence to follow the harvest from place to place - must be inspected and licensed, ensuring they meet a minimum standard of cleanliness and safety.

The law is supposed to protect workers and their families - many with limited command of English and little time or money to file complaints or find alternative housing - from being exploited by employers or farm labor contractors who might force them to live in filth and squalor.

Yet a four-month Austin American-Statesman (https://atxne.ws/1LHl7Cx ) investigation has revealed that in Texas many housing facilities elude the reach of the state’s limited inspection effort. Even when state regulators have received reports of deplorable conditions, and inspectors verify deficiencies - as they eventually did at the Van Horn chile farm - they don’t penalize offenders.

Among the Statesman’s findings:

- The state agency responsible for inspecting migrant farmworker housing, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, hasn’t levied a single enforcement action against operators of migrant farmworker facilities, even after they fail inspections. State law spells out a high threshold for enforcement action, resulting in zero fines since at least 2005.

- Because they don’t actively look for them, Texas regulators have failed to uncover numerous unlicensed housing facilities and bring them into compliance. The result: an estimated nine in 10 migrant farmworkers lack access to licensed facilities.

- While other agricultural states spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure safe and sanitary conditions at facilities for migrant farmworkers, Texas lawmakers provide no funding for the program. Last year, the housing department spent less than $2,500 on it. Inspections are conducted by manufactured housing division workers.

- Throughout the Panhandle and West Texas, motels often serve as housing of last resort for farmworkers. Yet Texas appears to have surveyed only a single motel since 2001. Other states, such as Indiana and Michigan, regularly inspect motels that house farmworkers.

“We have an agency that doesn’t go out and look, that doesn’t catch people out of compliance, so there is no incentive even to get a permit,” said Daniela Dwyer, head of the farmworker program at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc., which represented farmworkers in Van Horn. The state housing agency inspected 41 facilities in 2015, with a capacity for about 3,750 workers and family members. More than half of that capacity, however, is in two apartment complexes in the Rio Grande Valley, where most farmworkers have permanent housing rather than the temporary, seasonal accommodations the state law envisioned.

That means only a fraction of the state’s transitory farmworker population found room at a state-licensed and inspected facility. Estimates of the number of such workers vary widely: A 2012 consultant’s estimate of 34,000 counts only farmworkers in 49 of the state’s 254 counties and is considered low by advocacy groups. The National Center for Farmworker Health estimates Texas has more than 200,000 agricultural workers (455,000 counting family members), not including those who work off the books.

Joe Garcia, executive director of the state agency’s Manufactured Housing Division, called the larger task of finding unlicensed farmworker housing in Texas nearly impossible, adding that inspectors “get a lot done” with no funding. “As critical and important as it is, it’s very difficult to be proactive,” he said.

“Housing units potentially serving migrant labor are typically isolated and far out of sight from the highway and located on private property, which inhibits further inquiry,” agency spokesman Gordon Anderson said.

But advocates point out that the agency also doesn’t try that hard. Dwyer said her organization finds problem housing by going to places where farmworkers gather, such as food pantries, churches and laundromats, or contacting Head Start providers and migrant health providers - outreach the housing department doesn’t perform.

One sign: State officials were unaware of any complaints from the public regarding farmworker housing, considered key in locating unlicensed housing. States such as Wisconsin employ full-time outreach workers who forward problems to inspectors.

And critics say the agency doesn’t check up on facilities that drop out of its licensing program. Roman Ramos, who conducts farmworker outreach for RioGrande Legal Aid, said that in 2015 he saw at least two housing facilities with expired licenses in operation.

A Statesman review of inspection reports also revealed lax enforcement when inspectors discovered problems, a finding that has already led to changes within the agency.

After the newspaper inquired about a facility in the South Plains that received passing grades in 2014 and 2015 despite having the same five so-called deviations (including unsanitary mattresses, screens in poor condition and lack of first aid kits), state officials said they would stop issuing licenses based on promises to fix issues. “I did tell (inspectors) we needed to discontinue the practice,” Garcia said. “As a general rule, it’s better to say everything has to be checked off the list.”

Garcia defended the lack of fines and penalties, saying overly aggressive enforcement could cause growers to close down facilities, resulting in even fewer housing options.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. said the state must do more to find unlicensed facilities and suggested implementing stiff fines for operators who fail to register. The Brownsville Democrat said the current level of enforcement “questions the state’s resolve.”

“I am truly shocked,” Lucio said. “It is clear the licensing and inspection system needs to be improved.”

The Van Horn lawsuit was settled for undisclosed terms. In court filings, the company said housing was made available to the workers, but that nobody was forced to accept it, and the shipping containers weren’t offered up as dwellings.

Even though AJK Enterprises admitted to housing farmworkers without a license, state regulators took no follow-up enforcement action. In March 2014, inspectors found nine deficiencies, but two months later the company passed and today remains on the state-licensed migrant housing list.

In June 2012, Ernesto Garza, 35, left his home in the Rio Grande Valley town of Pharr and traveled 300 miles to the border city of Eagle Pass for the summer watermelon packing season. But when he saw the house his employers had arranged for him and his family of seven, he was disgusted. “At night you could hear rats scratching up against the wall,” he said.

The house had holes in the kitchen walls, black mildew or mold in the bathroom and rotting floorboards family members feared they would fall through, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this year. Garza said his then-4-year-old son developed a “nasty” rash due to flood-damaged carpeting in the house.

The house wasn’t inspected by state officials, even though attorneys said it fit the definition of migrant farmworker housing and so should have been regulated. “I never knew that was a requirement,” Garza said.

When he complained to his employer, Garza said, he was told to find alternative housing himself. But with his long work hours, unfamiliarity with the city and lack of money for a deposit, he was unsuccessful.

Decent housing is often hard to come by for migratory farmworkers, especially in rural areas with little infrastructure. A 2012 survey found affordable rental housing in agricultural areas is at 98 percent capacity.

At the same time, advocates say, migrant farmworkers aren’t quick to complain. “For the most part, they don’t like to create waves or draw attention to themselves,” said Kathy Tyler, who directs farmworker housing programs for Motivation, Education and Training Inc. Many, like Garza, are unaware that state law requires their housing to be inspected and licensed.

Texas began inspecting farmworker camps in 1971, part of a wave of state reforms after revelations of horrific living conditions and a growing farmworker rights movement. Yet farmworker advocates have long complained the program was ineffective.

State regulators have “been extremely lenient with Texas growers, canners, and cotton ginners over the past 5 years,” researcher David Winn wrote in a 1977 report. “No fines have ever been given and no one has ever gone to jail.”

Prior to 2005, migrant housing oversight was handled by the Department of State Health Services, which advocates say was ill-equipped to handle a housing inspection and compliance program. Conditions at the licensed facilities at the time were often appalling, recalled John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.

“Showers with thick gray mold, absence of working locks, broken windows,” he said. “It surpassed the stuff I had seen in the worst public housing developments.”

In 2005, the program was moved to the state’s housing department, which, with its network of field inspectors who looked at manufactured houses across the state, seemed to be a better fit. “They said they could cross-train those guys and do these inspections,” Henneberger said.

State officials also hoped the move would accomplish another key goal: find unlicensed facilities and bring them into compliance.

The agency outlined an outreach effort in the Rio Grande Valley and the Panhandle to inform migrant farmworkers of their right to inspected and licensed housing. It said it would contact advocacy groups to learn of “known or suspected facilities that are operating without required licenses.”

Yet the plan never resulted in complaints that could lead inspectors to problem properties.

Today, there is no budget for migrant housing outreach, said Anderson, the agency’s spokesman. “But our ears are always open if anyone does come to us.”

Other states do a better job of finding unlicensed facilities, thus creating opportunities to fix them. Florida received 77 complaints in 2014. Michigan investigated 23 complaints in 2015. Wisconsin employs a dedicated staff to find problem properties.

By comparison, since 2005 the Texas agency has limited itself to conducting inspections of a mostly stable group of housing providers, many of them cotton ginning co-operatives in the Panhandle and regional housing authorities. “These are people who voluntarily go through the licensing process and make themselves available for inspections,” Anderson said. “They tend to be the good guys.”

Ramos said that leaves entire agricultural regions - such as the area from Pearsall to Uvalde in South Texas - “pretty much off the radar.”

A growing number of farmers are using temporary foreign guest workers under the H2A visa program; their housing is inspected by the Texas Workforce Commission under federal rules and with federal money. But such workers make up a small percentage of farmworkers in the state.

Lucio, who co-sponsored the 2005 bill that moved inspection authority to the state housing department, said the agency should have alerted lawmakers that it wasn’t able to conduct regular outreach to the farmworker community. “If the agency doesn’t have resources for outreach, it needs to inform the Legislature,” he said.

Sitting in the flatlands near the intersection of West Texas and the Panhandle, tiny O’Donnell (pop. 831) has centered on agriculture, particularly cotton, since its founding in 1910 by a group of railroad promoters. Much of today’s field labor force in the town lives in a series of squat, straw-colored buildings made of corrugated metal and operated by the local farmers cooperative.

Once a year, a state inspector arrives to conduct a 78-point inspection meant to ensure that bathrooms, bedrooms and kitchens are sanitary and safe.

Nora Castillo, 31, has been coming to the O’Donnell facility with her family from Beaumont since she was 14. In the late summer of 2015, six adults and children lived in her two-bedroom, metal-walled unit that she said cost $50 a week. “It’s not a nice place or anything, but it’s OK for the season,” she said. “If we have any problems they fix them right away.” She liked the newly installed stove in the kitchen.

Yet inspection reports show that conditions at the O’Donnell facility, with a capacity for more than 70 residents, have caught regulators’ attention in the past. A 2013 inspection report noted “sewage on the surface,” unsanitary sleeping arrangements and bathrooms that “need work.”

State officials took no action against the facility. Instead, an inspector noted the facility’s manager “would call me as soon as it was all done.” Two months later, the inspector visited the facility again and declared “all items passed.”

The next year, however, an inspector noted more problems, including unsanitary mattresses, cramped sleeping arrangements, poor screens and lack of first aid kits. He still gave the facility a passing grade.

In 2015, an inspector noted the same problems, but once again passed the facility. Garcia, of the state housing agency, said the inspectors told him they returned to the facility to make sure the changes were made; however, records make no reference to another trip.

Glenn Ivins, manager of the labor camp, said he spends about $12,000 annually on upkeep. “I know that this facility is old and needs some work, but the people that stay here need to help out and take care of it while staying here,” he said.

The Statesman’s analysis of state reports shows it’s not unusual for housing inspectors to give passing grades even when they find “deviations.” The reports show about a dozen instances when facilities were re-licensed despite the problems uncovered by inspectors.

In some cases, inspectors noted that facility operators had pledged to fix them, but there was no evidence of a reinspection.

“As a regulatory agency our approach is educational and safety,” Garcia said. “An actual violation would be if a facility weren’t licensed and refused to be licensed and kept going; that would be a violation of the law, and I’m sure TDHCA would pursue that. We’ve never had that before that I know of.”

The Airport Motel and Apartments sits on the outskirts of Plainview, just across the street from the Hale County Airport and in the heart of the South Plains agricultural region between Lubbock and Amarillo. Among the residents on an autumn weekday was a farmworker who had recently arrived with his wife and two small children after he lost his job in the oil patch.

The man, who said he fears state child protection workers will remove his children if they learn about the state of the rooms inside, opened his door on the condition that his name not be published.

A single bed takes up almost the entire room. A hanging blanket acts both as a wall between the room and a small kitchen area and a barrier to the stench of sewage wafting through a bathroom window. Bottles of bug spray are littered around the room - a necessary weapon, the family says, against a cockroach infestation.

A small window air-conditioning unit groans against the September afternoon heat. The family sleeps with the front door open because it gets too hot at night. Rent is $480 a month.

“This is not where we want to be,” the man said. “But we don’t have any choice.”

Advocates say that during the harvest season cheap motels throughout the Panhandle and West Texas agricultural zone increasingly are filled with migrant farmworkers unable to find regular housing. The arrangements can cost workers more than renting a home, apartment or trailer, and they can lack basic necessities for long-term living, such as kitchens and laundry facilities.

State standards on shower and laundry facilities are important to help keep workers clean before handling fruits and vegetables, advocates say, noting that unsanitary housing also has the potential to become a food safety issue.

Yet Texas officials don’t regularly inspect motels that serve as farmworker housing, as some other agricultural states do. Records show that in 2015, housing inspectors licensed what appears to be their first motel since 2001, a newly remodeled facility in Denver City, near the New Mexico state line.

Garcia said enforcing licensing rules at motels is difficult, noting that even if inspectors hear of a motel where migrants might be living, owners can sidestep responsibility - even in cases where it is common knowledge the residents are temporary farmworkers. “Someone in that situation would say, ‘We just rent the rooms; we don’t know the people that are here,’” he said.

Advocates say it’s a question of priorities. “Every state is challenged with resources, but some have a lot of people who go out and look for violations,” Dwyer said. “We realize this could be an unfunded mandate, but the law is the law.”

___

Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com

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