Taxpayers Are Funding 'Safe Housing for America's Farm Laborers'

By Susan Jones | August 16, 2013 | 8:38 AM EDT

Farmworkers harvest and package cantaloupes near Firebaugh, Calif. (AP File Photo)

( - The U.S. Agriculture Department says it has $40 million to spend on "safe housing" for itinerant farmworkers and their families.

"Despite budget uncertainties," USDA says it remains focused on strengthening the rural economy.

"The intended purpose of these loans and grants is to increase the number of available housing units for domestic farm laborers," said the notice in the Federal Register.

A domestic farm laborer is defined in federal law as either a citizen of the United States or someone who has been "legally admitted for permanent residence." Farm workers who are admitted under the Temporary Agricultural Workers (H-2A Visa) program are not eligible for the housing.

But in his funding announcement, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged Congress to pass an immigration bill that would put millions of illegal aliens, including many itinerant farm-workers, on a pathway to citizenship.

"USDA's Farm Labor Housing Program is the only national source of construction funds to buy, build or improve housing for farmworkers, who are critical to the tremendous productivity of American agriculture," Vilsack said.

"This program is an important way that USDA helps to ensure the well-being of itinerant farm labor families. Looking ahead to the future, we will also continue to urge passage of common sense immigration reform that will create rules that work for farm workers and producers alike."

The Senate-passed immigration bill includes a special program for undocumented farm workers, making them eligible for a "blue card" that would allow them to apply for legal status if they have continued to work in agriculture for five years, paid their taxes, and pay a fine. They could apply for citizenship after being permanent residents for five years. Vilsack says the program would ensure the stable agricultural workforce that U.S. producers need.

Between 2007 and 2009, 48 percent of hired crop farm workers were undocumented aliens, according to the U.S. Labor Department's National Agricultural Workers Survey,  Eighteen percent had green cards; 33 percent were U.S. citizens. Sixty-eight percent were from Mexico.

Under the USDA's Farm Labor Housing Program, loans and grants are provided to farmers and farmworkers' associations, family farm corporations, Indian tribes, nonprofit organizations, and public agencies to develop or improve multi-family housing facilities for farmworkers and their families.

Funds can be used to purchase a site or a leasehold interest in a site; to construct housing, day care facilities, or community rooms; to pay fees to purchase durable household furnishings; and to pay construction loan interest.

As an example, USDA pointed to Bienestar, a nonprofit organization in Oregon, which received a grant and a loan to construct a 24-unit farmworker apartment complex in Forest Grove, Ore. The complex opened in December 2012. In addition to providing new, modern two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments for residents, the facility also provides services such as English as a Second Language tutoring, and classes on computers, financial literacy, and nutrition.

Bienstar says it "advocates for human rights and social justice on a local, statewide and national level and serves the community at large by shedding light on emerging Latino issues."

The Aug. 14 farmworker housing announcement makes available approximately $30 million in loans, $8.5 million in grants, and $951,000 in rental assistance.

Vilsack noted that since 2009, the Obama Administration has provided more than $137 million in Farm Labor Housing assistance to construct or renovate 2,165 apartment units for farmworkers and their families.

Support for itinerant farmworkers is coming from other quarters as well.

The American Public Health Association, a lobby that aims to build "a collective voice for public health," has made affordable, quality housing for farmworkers, regardless of legal status, a priority issue.

"The American Public Health Association has long acknowledged the connection between housing and health, supported occupational health and safety protections, and urged that the health of immigrants, regardless of documentation status, be improved," the group said in a 2011 position paper.

"APHA recognizes that the United States has 'an affirmative responsibility to create and implement policies that do not harm the health and human rights of documented and undocumented persons.'"