Freezer Burned

Chilly weather and a sluggish bureaucracy have left Dade's farmworkers out in the cold

Felicia Lopez's household economy was a matter of simple math. On a good day she could earn $21 picking buckets of tomatoes at a farm in South Dade. Her husband, who works faster and picks green beans, sometimes could bring home as much as $66. Together they made enough to support their three children -- as long as the crops were healthy.

The big freeze of January 18 and 19 that deep-sixed South Florida's winter vegetable harvest also nullified Lopez's careful calculations. The Monday after the freeze, she and her husband took home less than twelve dollars. Half of that went to their baby sitter.

Farmworkers call it the worst freeze since 1989. Overnight temperatures dipped into the twenties in some areas, ruining $93 million worth of fruits and vegetables in Dade and $400 million throughout Florida. Local crops of pole beans, boniato, peas, and okra were wiped out. Squash, corn, and hot and sweet peppers were decimated. An estimated 7000 to 10,000 farmworkers will be unemployed while newly planted crops grow -- from several weeks to several months.

While they wait, farmworkers like Lopez find themselves unable to pay their bills. A few are surviving on food stamps and unemployment checks. But state laws that require a worker to have earned a minimum amount in the last fifteen months exclude laborers such as Lopez, who applied for unemployment but was turned down.

In other cases, says Arturo Lopez, executive director of the Coalition of Florida Farmworker Organizations, workers are rejected because their employer failed to report their earnings. In addition, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of Florida farmworkers are illegal aliens who are not eligible for government aid of any kind.

Felicia Lopez, who is a legal resident (and not related to Arturo Lopez), has pinned her hopes on the Migrant Services Council, a coalition of community groups that announced the establishment of a Freeze Disaster Clearinghouse/Referral Center last week to coordinate relief. Lopez showed up at the center the day it opened at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Homestead -- along with hundreds of other farmworkers and their children.

"We have limited resources," Susan Reyna of MUJER (Women United in Justice, Education, and Social Reform) told the crowd. That was an understatement, Reyna later explained. The council had obtained just $7000 of the estimated $325,000 its members figured was needed to help the 30,000 people hurt by the freeze in Dade County. (That figure, a rough estimate provided by Reyna and other farmworker advocates, assumes that each unemployed worker has three dependents.) As rent and utility bills come due, families are beginning to feel the effect of the missing wages. "It's going to be an increasing crisis," Reyna says.

Reyna and other advocates had hoped that the financial crunch would be partially relieved by a special state emergency fund for farmworkers. For weeks they had lobbied to get the money released. But Molly Payne, public affairs director for the Florida Department of Community Affairs, says officials in Tallahassee were waiting for Reyna and others to come up with hard data before they released any money. "What was happening, quite frankly, was that the anecdotal stories of need did not match the numbers," she explains, citing the fact that relatively few farmworkers applied for unemployment.

"What's really frustrating to us as community people is that the burden of proof always falls on our shoulders," Reyna counters. "We don't have the resources or the manpower to do the type of studies [the state required to release the aid], but if we don't do it, nothing gets done."

The task of quantifying the hardship caused by the cold snap was complicated by the U.S. Border Patrol. On February 6, soon after word had spread that farmworkers should apply for unemployment assistance, fifteen agents descended on downtown Homestead, parking three large buses in an alley that abutted the state unemployment office. Fifty-five illegal aliens were arrested for various immigration violations. Eleven were subsequently released, while the others have either voluntarily returned to their countries of origin or are awaiting deportation hearings.

The incident aroused suspicions in the farmworker community. "A lot of people said they did it so there would be less people who needed help," Felicia Lopez reports. Rumors spread quickly. Other farmworkers who showed up at the Homestead church believe that more than 100 people were taken away and that women were cruelly separated from their children.

Arturo Lopez says he, too, heard the rumors and became concerned that the border patrol may have purposely set out to arrest unemployed workers. "It was kind of weird," he observes. "We had been trying to encourage people to go to the unemployment office because the state was saying there was no evidence that people were affected by the freeze. Then when they got there, immigration was waiting. I don't know if it was just an unfortunate coincidence or what."

Herbert Jefferson, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, denies that the operation targeted farmworkers at all. Jefferson says agents had received a tip about resident aliens who had been convicted of serious crimes and were thus subject to deportation. The aliens reportedly were operating a shuttle service, picking up workers at a site near the unemployment office and taking them to day-labor jobs. According to Jefferson, agents spent at least a month gathering intelligence before moving in to make arrests.

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