“Unlivable: How Texas fails farmworkers”
March 17, 2016
Texas has tens of thousands of transitory migrant farmworkers who help power an $8 billion a year industry. By state law, those migratory farmworkers, the majority of whom are U.S. citizens traveling from South Texas to points north, must be housed in facilities that meet basic health and safety standards. Yet no one had ever checked whether the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs was doing its job of inspecting known housing facilities and perhaps uncovering illegally operating housing.
Over a four-month investigation, American-Statesman reporter Jeremy Schwartz and photojournalist Rodolfo Gonzalez interviewed Spanish-speaking agricultural crews in the fields and knocked on doors at rural mobile home parks and motels, providing our readers with a picture of the substandard housing conditions that state officials often don’t bother to investigate.
They traveled to West Texas and the Texas-Mexico border to speak with migrant farmworkers, labor contractors, housing administrators and local officials, as well as farmworker attorneys, advocates, housing experts and officials at the local, state and federal level.
The investigation found a broken system and regulators who have failed to levy a single enforcement action against operators even after multiple failed inspections.
The investigation revealed that inspectors also fail to uncover the vast majority of farmworker housing facilities, as they are tasked to do, leaving thousands of workers at the mercy of unscrupulous labor contractors and growers. At one migrant housing facility, a worker was sleeping on a door that had been placed atop a tractor tire. Despite the conditions at the Van Horn chile ranch, no fines were issued.
The investigation had immediate impact. As a result of findings presented to state housing officials, the department made a policy change even before the story ran: Inspectors would stop issuing licenses based merely on promises to fix issues in the future.
Less than a week after publication, two state senators pledged to file bills at the state Legislature to strengthen and better fund the state’s inspection program. Also as a direct result of the investigation, a working group of housing officials, attorneys, farmworker advocates and legislative staffers formed to seek solutions to the state’s farmworker housing crisis.
Submitted by John Bridges.