Local News

OPEN OPPORTUNITY H-2A provides a better life for migrant workers

AVON PARK - As "Filimon" sat on the front porch of his Glenwood Avenue apartment, squinting into a pre-evening sun, his 19-year-old son, Adam, timidly and silently sat next to him.

The fact his son was with him at all is a testament to the success of what brought Filimon, who asked his last name not be used, to the United States, Florida and specifically, Avon Park: the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services H-2A program.

The H-2A program allows U.S. employers or U.S. agents who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs.

According to immigration services, some of the qualifications for employers is to offer a job that is temporary or seasonal; show there are not sufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available to do the temporary work; and show that the employment of H-2A workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.

Through H-2A, Filimon, 60, a native of the central Mexican state of Hildago, has built a new life for himself and his family back in Mexico. His son joined him in December working for Sebring's Overlook Groves, working June to November harvesting hamlin and valencia oranges around Highlands County.

Smiling, Filimon said he had been working in the U.S. since 1988 but only about a year in Highlands County, working in parts of the county's approximately 63,000 acres of citrus groves that cover roughly 13 percent of its 1,000 square miles of land. Speaking in Spanish, he said the housing provided by his employer as part of the H-2A requirements is the main basic benefit, especially when work is slow or nonexistent due to weather or pest problems.

"It's (H-2A) been very good; the program has helped me," he said. "It's hard coming over the border without it. With H-2A, it's all out in the open, we don't need to hide - we're not having to hide."

In Avon Park, the H-2A program is coordinated through joint efforts by the city and H-2A housing provider Al and Dora Smith. They own about 40 H-2A housing units around the city and work with participants around the city and just outside its limits. From their home, along with help from their daughter, Alyssa Smith, the landlords have helped more than 100 people get housing and assistance through H-2A for the past two years.

"It's been a very good experience working with the (Avon Park) city on this. The city has been very cooperative," said Dora, a board member with the Highlands County League of United Latin American Citizens.

During a recent drive around the city, Dora pointed out some of the H-2A housing she and her husband provide. She said the homes or units are screened for cleanliness and sanitation by the Highlands County Health Department and are zoned in multi-family areas and checked with code enforcement or planning and zoning "to make sure it's zoned properly for what we want to do with H-2A."

"You abide by the rules. You have to check with zoning and see that it's the proper thing to do," said Dora.

The Smiths' apartments rent from $250 for a one bedroom, to $625 for a three-bedroom home with occupants there seven to eight months.

Like the folks she works with, Dora personally knows about the lives her tenants lead. She spent her youth with her migrant family harvesting tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries and cherries in Ohio and Michigan. In 1982, she became a registered nurse at Polk State College and LPN at South Florida State College.

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Driving down Main Street, Dora saw some of her H-2A tenants helping with landscaping outside of a building being remodeled into a restaurant. She pulled over to talk to the foreman, while behind her Zenaido Benitez-Hernandez and Marco Antonio, both also of Hidalgo, Mexico, swept the floor and worked outside helping dig a ditch.

Hernandez, 39, and Antonio, 20, work for Marin Harvesting, Sebring. They said during the season they spend eight hours a day harvesting oranges, grapefruits and tangerines.

In Spanish, as he took a break from the outdoors, Benito-Hernandez said H-2A has been a "blessing" for him, saying without the program, he wouldn't be able to get to the U.S. for work and would remain in Mexico, where he would be lucky if he made $5,000 a year. He said through H-2A, his company provides documentation and helps him get settled for the harvesting season. The goal for him and his fellow migrant workers, he said, is to go through the process legally, helping themselves and the state and U.S. economies.

"The company pays for me to come over. It's a lot easier for me, and we don't have to risk our lives coming over," he said. "It helps us get around. We're no longer breaking the (U.S.) law and we want to have a good record here."

That's the aim for many of Alejandro Santiago's clients. Santiago is an immigration law attorney for Sebring's Central Florida Immigration Law Firm. His immigration law office handles about six to seven immigration cases per week, and he said the program has been a benefit for the area's temporary and season migrant workers. He said his law firm primarily does deportation, visa and documentation work.

Santiago, a native of Puerto Rico, said the H-2A program has helped alleviate some of Avon Park's past problems. For example, in 2005 the Highlands County Health Department was issuing migrant labor camp operating permits that violated local zoning. State representatives came to the county in an effort to revise state laws so health departments could deny labor camp operating permits if they violated zoning ordinances. In 2006, issues in Avon Park arose regarding the number of migrant renters who could live in a single house, at that time, five or more per house under the Migrant Farmworker Housing Program.

"I would love to get more involved with the H-2A people. There's a huge need for them and it's good for the economy, not just for H-2A, but also for the ones that have been here a long time," he said.

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According to Human Rights Watch, there are more than 30,000 temporary agricultural workers under H-2A nationally, and they're all supposed to be covered by certain standards such as U.S. wage laws, workers' compensation and fair housing and housing licensing. Maria Sutherland, Avon Park director of administrative services, said in Avon Park, the city has been looking to ensure that housing codes are adhered to in zoning and code compliance. She said for many years, there had been a premise that if the county health department provided a license for housing, then the owner would just open and bypass city zoning because they had a "county license."

Sutherland said migrant camps getting governmental support via the H-2A program can't open a migrant camp without a county license, and to provide H-2A housing a county license is required, but housing owners still need to pass code in the city.

She said the city's code takes precedence over the county licensing; anyone can get a license, but not everyone is zoned for boarding houses, which would render a license moot. The county health department does not check for zoning compliance when they issue a license.

"We did not try to eliminate the licensing at all. We only have tried to ensure that codes are adhered to," she said in an email.

As for H-2A, Sutherland said she couldn't address non-H2A housing as far as quality and cleanliness, but any rental housing has gone through the city's rental inspection before anyone moves in. She stated owners are more aware of the city's codes and have improved the quality of the housing they are providing.

"This is the only way the City can ensure that decent, dignified housing is available to those families seeking a roof over their head," she said. "This is good for everyone regardless of their occupation."

In July 2006, the Avon Park City Council defeated an ordinance on the Illegal Immigration Relief Act 3-2. The ordinance would have stopped the city from licensing businesses that "aids and abets illegal aliens or illegal immigration" anywhere in the United States "for a period no less than five years from its last offense."

As for H-2A housing quality now, section H-2A of the "Immigration and Nationality Act" states employers must provide or find housing at no cost to H-2A workers who are not able to return to their permanent residence at the end of the work day. Employers may elect to secure rental accommodations for the covered workers and are required to pay all housing-related charges directly to the owner or operator of the housing.

Jason Wolfe, environmental specialist II for the Florida Department of Health, Highlands County, said four inspectors look over H-2A housing and there are more than 100 H-2A housing units among Avon Park, Sebring, Lake Placid and Venus. He said H-2A homes are checked twice every three months to make sure lighting, screening, smoke detectors and other amenities are in good condition. He said the state labor department issues annual operating permits for each migrant housing facility under H-2A.

"We just want to make sure that they (workers) have good housing conditions and they have a safe place to live while they are here working," he said.

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Around the county and especially Avon Park, H-2A workers are in full swing from Nov. 15 to June 15 each year, said one Avon Park citrus harvester who asked his name not be used to protect his H2-A workers. He said he's employed about 300 H-2A citrus harvesters annually over the past seven years. He said the program is a boon to the national, state and local economies. The National Center for Farmworker Health states migrant farm labor, including H-2A, supports the $28 billion fruit and vegetable industry in the U.S.

The citrus harvester said the main benefit of the program locally is that "you have a workforce and also you have a workforce that is here legally." He said H-2A provides workers who are screened and status-checked.

"They're not criminals; they bring business to help the economy, to work and better themselves. They don't come here illegally, they're clean and really hard-working."

As immigration and migrant work continues to keep Highland County's agriculture growing, H-2A liaisons and sponsors expect to stay busy processing and helping workers. If the U.S. Congress passes immigration reform legislation this year, it would have a huge impact on what the U.S. Census Bureau is calling the "Second Great Wave" of immigration in the country's history. The bureau estimates 40 million people living in the U.S. in 2010 were born outside of the country, about 12.9 percent of the population - the highest population of immigrants, percentage-wise, since the 1920s.

As Filimon and Adam watched their neighbors chatting on the sidewalk in front of them, Filimon said he knows of some workers who have self-deported themselves in order to come back via H-2A and a more secure, legal life.

"It's been easier for me here. It (H-2A) has made it easier for me and for the next generations," he said, smiling.