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Looking to Settle Down, Immigrant Farmworkers Face Housing Crisis

The immigrant workers who pick crops like cotton and melons in the U.S. can have a tough time finding a place to live. The rural areas where they can find work often lack social services and affordable housing. That means many farm worker families end up in dilapidated buildings, which can come with health risks.

Angel Castro's old road is muddy and covered with flooded potholes. He lived here during the 1990s just behind a large John Deere store in Kennett, Mo.

"This is one of the trailer parks that rent to migrant people," he says. "It's not in the greatest shape, you know? But if you need a place to stay you have to do what you have to do."

Dozens of trailers and campers sit on lots littered with plastic bottles and food wrappers. Large tires hold down roofs, siding is falling off the mobile homes and cracked windows are covered up with plastic. Castro says during growing season, these trailers pack in up to ten farm workers.

"Right here, I think they charge you by the head," he says. "It depends on how many people are staying in the trailer. I think it's like $120 a month a person."

Castro was born in Mexico but raised just across the border in Texas. His family spent summers chasing the watermelon crop from state to state as migrant farm workers. Now, he has a job recruiting farmworkers' kids to enroll in school programs.

"When we used to travel, we ran into some of those trailers, too. My sister used to cry `Oh look at the places we live in.' And my dad would say `It's only a month. Just ride it out a month and we'll be out of here,'" Castro says.

More than 40 percent of farmworkers have lived in the U.S. for at least 15 years, according to data analysis from the Housing Assistance Council. Rather than short-term migrants looking for seasonal work, many farmworkers are remaining in the U.S. longer and looking for a place to settle.

Generally there are three types of housing options for farmworkers: Private housing like the trailers Castro lived in, employee housing provided by a boss, and government funded housing. 

"There is a big need across the country," says U.S. Rural Housing Administrator Tony Hernandez. "There is probably more need than money we have."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture lends money through a federal program to build farm worker housing. Hernandez says it's critical to provide housing for the people who help get Americans' food to the table.

"It's not that long ago farmworker housing was nonexistent in a lot of places," he says. "People lived in their car. There was not a bathroom for places to have. This is really an effort to make safe and decent housing and better working conditions and housing is a big part of that."

Hernandez says while creation of farmworker housing has improved through the program, there is stiff competition for loans and some projects don't get funded immediately. The program is dependent on how much money Congress allocates to the program, which is in flux and has run as high as $60 million down to $5 million in recent years.

Ultimately, when there isn't local housing available, farm workers can often end up in shantytowns.

"Farmworkers don't make a lot of money. They don't have a lot of options. The housing that they are able to find is often substandard," says Virginia Ruiz, director of occupational and environmental health at the advocacy group Farmworker Justice. She says farmworkers are often priced out of rural rental markets that lack the resources, infrastructure or desire to build affordable housing and end up crammed into rundown trailer parks.

"You also see often overcrowding which can also be harmful psychologically," she says. "It's very stressful. It's easier in overcrowded housing for diseases to spread."

Tuberculosis, pesticide exposure and viral breakouts are a few of the more common threats facing farmworkers living in housing without adequate showers, ventilation and utilities. 

"Practically every state has a lack of enforcement," says Moises Loza, the executive director of the Housing Assistance Council. His group works to improve housing conditions in rural areas. He says enforcement on housing codes doesn't happen often enough because of limited resources. And you're not going to hear the tenants raising a fuss about the conditions either.

"They're uninformed about what rights they might have or what codes there are in housing," he says. "But even if they did know, they're also afraid of getting immigration after them."

Seventy percent of U.S. farmworkers were born in Mexico. And 50 percent of farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented, according to the council. Loza says the population is largely invisible because of language barriers and fear.

Angel Castro's old trailer has been spiffed up and looks nicer than the ones rented to farmworkers in his old neighborhood. He says he was the first Mexican to move here. 

"When you don't have the money or the means to get somewhere else or buy somewhere else, you do what you have to survive. To live," he says.

Castro now lives with his family 10 miles away in a town with a burgeoning Hispanic population. He says he was fortunate to work his way out of the crop picking trade and the trailer park. But he says without education or enforcement of housing codes, the living conditions for the tenants who continue to work the fields will linger.

This story was reported as part of a fellowship with the Institute for Justice and Journalism.

Kristofor Husted is a senior reporter at KBIA in Columbia, Mo. Previously Husted reported for NPR’s Science Desk in Washington and Harvest Public Media. Husted was a 2013 fellow with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and a 2015 fellow for the Institute for Journalism and Justice. He’s won regional and national Edward R. Murrow, PRNDI and Sigma Delta Chi awards. Husted also is an instructor at the Missouri School of Journalism. He received a B.S. in cell biology from UC Davis and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University.