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Senator's visit boosts farm workers
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2000
IMMOKALEE -- The results of a meeting between U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and farm-worker advocates may have wide implications for the nation's millions of farm workers.
In the past, Graham, a wealthy Miami Democrat, has been routinely criticized for a lack of interest in farm-worker issues, so his visit to this tomato- and citrus-growing community is seen as a moral and, perhaps, a political victory for farm hands seeking higher wages and better working and living conditions.
Graham came here to listen to farm-worker grievances. But Florida's senior senator also came to muster support among farm workers and their backers for a bill that he and Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon introduced in Congress in October. Called the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 1999, the proposal would replace H-2A, the nation's current foreign guest-worker program.
The goal of the bill, Graham said, is to transform a heavily illegal work force into one that is legal.
Under the new system, illegal workers could earn legal status if they satisfy specific requirements. If the bill passes, undocumented workers would need to spend five more years in the fields to qualify for permanent legal status. Those who can show that they worked at least 150 days as farm hands within the last year could immediately receive legal status as temporary nonimmigrants. Pickers who work a minimum of 180 days annually in five of the next seven years would qualify to apply for permanent residency. The proposal also contains modified standards for housing, transportation and wages.
Graham claims the bill will improve the plight of both domestic and foreign workers. But farm workers and advocates disagree, arguing that the proposal will hurt workers. For example, Greg Schell, managing attorney for the Migrant Justice Project in Belle Glade, said: "This bill represents an enormous step backwards for America's workers. Florida's farmers would be guaranteed a limitless supply of cheap foreign labor at bargain basement prices. If this bill is adopted, all competitive incentives will be removed for Florida growers to improve wages and benefits for farm workers."
Although Schell and others disagree with Graham, they applaud him for leaving Washington to talk with the pickers. Area growers adamantly refuse to do so. Before meeting with the group, Graham visited two farm-working families. At the first home, a privately owned three-room shack, the senator was visibly moved. The family -- two adults and three children -- share one bed and a couch for which they pay $75 per week, in addition to water and electricity. The front door is falling off its hinges, the ceiling is rotting away and snakes crawl inside through holes in the walls and floor. The children, two in elementary school, have no place to do their homework.
"These conditions are shameful," Graham said. "I don't think America can raise its children in these kind of conditions."
The second family lived in an apartment owned by the Collier County Housing Authority. It was spacious and clean. Graham promised to speak with growers statewide who have developed positive relations with farm workers and develop a model to use in Immokalee and other parts of the nation.
For nearly two hours, Graham and the coalition traded ideas, and they pledged to meet again to discuss changes to the new guest-worker proposal. The senator promised he would seriously consider the coalition's suggestions.
"I believe any time you're considering legislation that you need to talk to the people who will be most directly affected," he said. "I think having a discussion with people who have different responsibilities and different life experiences forces you to understand how somebody else views the world. That's a good thing, but it's not the last chapter. You have to then put that better understanding to some useful work to improve conditions. I think there has been a historical reluctance of farm workers, of growers, of politicians and others involved to really sit down and understand the other person's concerns. We've got to work through these concerns to a solution. It's not a good thing to make laws in ignorance."
Speaking for the coalition, organizer Greg Asbed said: "We're pleased the senator came to listen. And we also listened to his proposal. He wanted us to hear the questions he had about the future of agriculture. And now we will see where we go. The most important things we are calling for are a dialogue with the growers and respect. Sen. Graham's coming here and sitting down with us in and of itself speaks volumes."
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