March 5, 1999
EDITOR'S NOTE: As disasters go, the freeze in California's citrus country did not offer much in the way of photo opportunities no flooded towns or buried houses, and the damage to the fruit is invisible from the outside. Those most damaged by the freeze, the workers who pick the fruit, also seem to be invisible, yet their needs are real and their sources of relief sparse.
By David Bacon
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
Orange Cove, CA Major natural disasters are usually presented in ways that excite broad sympathy. Officials fly over in helicopters, Congress makes emergency appropriations, federal and state agencies organize food distribution and start dispensing funds for rebuilding.
But last December, when temperatures fell below freezing in the orange and lemon groves studding California's San Joaquin Valley, the natural disaster never made it onto the radar screen.
Tiny ice crystals formed inside the fruit. When they melted, the oranges were so badly damaged they could no longer be eaten.
Over 100,000 workers and their families depend on this crop. For farm workers, these are good jobs as citrus fruit stays on the trees for months. So the freeze destroyed not just a few weeks of work, but work for a year.
In the months since the freeze, farm workers have grown increasingly desperate. "We were the poorest city in the U.S. in per capita income before," laments Orange Cove mayor Victor Lopez. "Think of what our situation is now."
The only relief food available has been surplus cheese and other commodities from U.S. Department of Agriculture warehouses. But there hasn't been nearly enough for everyone. "I leave my house to get in line at the church at 5 in the morning," complains Josefa Mendoza, who has spent 13 years picking oranges. "At 8am they come and tell us there's not enough for everyone. Meanwhile we've all been standing in the rain for hours, getting wet and cold for nothing."
One week in late February, there were 450 people in line, and only 180 bags of food.
On February 9, nearly two months after the freeze, President Clinton finally declared six counties "disaster areas." The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) plans to send money to compensate growers for crop losses and allow small business owners to draw unemployment benefits. But this approach will exclude more than half the farm workers.
Very few farm workers receive unemployment benefits. Although surveys by the United Farm Workers found more than 28,000 workers unemployed or underemployed in Tulare and Fresno counties alone because of the freeze, only 5164 workers have even applied for disaster-related unemployment, according to the state Employment Development Department (EDD). Many seasonal farm workers didn't accumulate sufficient hours to qualify for benefits, others must work one day a week to keep regular jobs, also rendering them ineligible. EDD is not relaxing eligibility rules.
Most workers, however, are disqualified because of their immigration status. Almost all farm workers in California today are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. While there are no accurate statistics, it is generally agreed that more than half have no immigration documents.
That disqualifies them from unemployment benefits, despite the fact that those benefits are based on a worker's earnings. Undocumented families are also ineligible for welfare, MediCal or food stamps or other aid. For example, federal and state agencies plan to open 15 one-stop centers in the disaster area to help workers with rent and mortgages. "But people can only qualify for programs if they're here legally," according to Eliza Chan, FEMA spokesperson in San Francisco.
Most undocumented people shun public exposure, fearing deportation. But at a meeting organized by the UFW to alert federal and state officials to the extent of the disaster, one undocumented Orange Cove woman, holding a baby in her arms and trailed by a small boy pulling at her skirt, spoke openly of her own situation.
"We pay taxes," she declared angrily. "My rent is $292 a month, and seven of us me, my husband and five kids live in our apartment. Why can't we get relief? I've been living and working in Orange Cove for eight years. Two of my children were born here they're citizens. But I still can't get help. No unemployment benefits. No food stamps. No welfare."
Many residents who do have papers are reluctant to seek help because they are applying for visas for other family members and fear that the 1996 immigration reform law will invalidate those applications if they receive any form of public assistance. "I have a 23-year old son in Mexico," explained one woman , "I have to choose between uniting my family and getting evicted."
Ted Mastroianni, deputy assistant to Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, acknowledges the government was slow to appreciate the impact of the freeze, but claims, "We're moving very rapidly to deliver aid to the unemployed."
"All of us need it, documented and undocumented," says Marta Lidia Orellana, who came from El Salvador 13 years ago. "My husband was assassinated during the civil war, and I came as a refugee. I left my children behind, and for months I haven't been able to send any money home. I don't even have enough to pay rent or buy food. They say they can't help me because I don't have a regular residence visa.
"It's the poor who make the growers rich," she declared. "Now when we need something, where's all the money we made for them?"
David Bacon writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.