Migrant farmworkers benefit from aid program in Lexington
By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
LEXINGTON - The lowering August sun glimmered on old red brick and gleamed on weathered faces as dozens of Hispanic migrant workers gathered behind Dibbons Hall of Immaculate Conception Church for the first evening of the Migrant Farmworkers Project.
Marty Denzer/Key photo
Brother Dale Mooney and a project volunteer help migrant families carry groceries to their cars. The 10-week Migrant Farmworkers Project helps migrant workers with food, clothing, legal and social services.
MFP is a project of Legal Aid of Western Missouri which offers social and legal services to migrant workers who come to the region during the fall apple harvest.
"Hola! Como esta usted?" (Hello. How are you?) With hugs and handshakes, migrant workers greeted the MFP staff and volunteers before lining up to register for food, commodities and social or legal services.
"Bienvenido. ¨Cual es su nombre?" (Welcome. What is your name?) a staff member asked a man standing at the registration table.
Suzanne Gladney, an immigration attorney for Legal Aid, started the project about 21 years ago. She had worked with immigrants for about five years, and had come to the realization that there was a need for services beyond legal matters.
Gladney approached several churches in the Lexington area to ask for a space to distribute food to migrant workers beginning in the late summer.
"Father Clancy Ryan was the pastor here (at Immaculate Conception) 20 years ago," she said. "When I asked him if he had any space, he didn't say he'd have to take it to a committee or even think about it. He just said, 'Yes' and handed me a key to Dibbons Hall which used to be the school. This is our 21st year here."
According to Clare Murphy, a law student at the University of Missouri, the food distribution grew into the Migrant Farmworkers Project, which pulls together social, medical, dental and legal services and diocesan agencies to help migrant families. A clothes closet and other services are available as they are needed, Murphy said.
"Tengo una familia. Yo le presento mi esposa y mi hija." (I have a family. This is my wife and daughter.) The migrant worker answered another question posed by the staff member.
A migrant worker is required to register for commodities such as rice, beans, coffee and other food staples, paper goods such as toilet paper, paper towels and tissues, and personal toiletries, because donated commodities can only be received once a month.
Deacons at several parishes in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese collect rice, beans and coats to be distributed to the migrants. Barbara O'Neill, diocesan coordinator of diaconate formation, said MFP is part of the training program for deacons. She takes a diaconate class to the project site every few years to observe and minister to the migrants, she said. "It (the migrant project) has a profound impact on their spirituality."
Christian Brother Dale Mooney of the diocesan Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry coordinates Spanish language Masses at Immaculate Conception Church for both the migrant and permanent farm workers in the Lexington area.
The information obtained when registering can also be used to determine other needs a worker might have, such as work permit renewals, medical or dental appointments and school registration.
Gladney said she and her staff see 500 to 600 migrant workers each year during the 10-week project; about 70 percent of them are repeat visits from previous years. The orchards in Lafayette County have been employing migrant workers for a generation, she said.
"Oh, el bebe es adorable!" (Oh, the baby is adorable!) Deanne Flickinger of Legal Aid clapped her hands as a young woman approached the registration table, carrying a young child.
"When that family came to MFP last year, she was hugely pregnant. The baby was born last winter. This is the first time I've seen him," she said.
About 95 percent of the migrant workers are from Mexico. Others come from Guatemala, El Salvador, California, Texas and Florida. While a few migrant workers are bilingual (Spanish and English), most speak only Spanish.
The migrant population in Lexington is a mix of both documented and undocumented workers, said Holly Wurthen, project manager of MFP. Many migrant families received permanent residency status during the immigrant amnesty program in the mid 1980s, Gladney added. Because the Migrant Farmworkers Project is not a government agency, any migrant farm worker is eligible to receive services.
In recent years, more and more undocumented immigrants have crossed the borders in Texas, California and New Mexico to find better paying work in the United States. When they are caught by Immigration and Naturalization officials, they are usually sent back to Mexico where they work for a while, save a little money and try again. The burden on both the detained immigrants who were trying to support a family and on the jails and detention centers was becoming onerous. An experimental program of intensive supervision began in seven cities across the United States. Kansas City is one of the sites.
The detainee agrees to participate in an electronic monitoring program connected to their home telephone lines in lieu of a $5,000 to $10,000 bond. There is continual contact between the participant and the case officer. Monitoring is cut back incrementally every 30 days until the case is heard in immigration court. There are 65 immigrants in the program to date, Gladney said. None are from the Lexington area so far, however.
They begin arriving in June to work on the blackberry and peach crops. By late July hundreds of migrant workers pour into the region for the apple harvest, which lasts until the beginning of November.
Even if documented, life is not easy for migrant families. Insufficient food, inadequate housing, low pay, cultural and language barriers, low educational levels, discrimination, and the loneliness and isolation that accompany their frequent moves are a few of the challenges they face in Lexington and around the country.
There are three apple orchards in Lafayette County. The migrant laborers live in 14 camp locations in the orchards, and in the towns of Wellington, Lexington, Dover and Waverly. Most of the migrant families return to Texas, California or Florida for the citrus crop when the apple harvest is over. Some go home to Mexico until the next migrant season. A few families remain to work the orchards year-round, pruning and fertilizing the trees. Some find work in factories in neighboring communities.
In many orchard camps, living quarters for the migrant workers are two long concrete dormitory-style buildings. Single males may sleep in bunk beds in one building, leaving the other for families. Each room contains bunk beds for four to six men, a sink, stove and refrigerator, a couch, a table and chairs and a closet.
Permanent agricultural families may combine several rooms to create private kitchens and baths as well as a living room and bedroom.
The permanent family units are equipped with heating systems. Rent and utilities are paid by their employers.
Kerr Family Orchards closed at the end of the 2003 season, but Gladney said Peter's Orchards near Waverly had taken over their migrant housing facilities.
"There'll be fewer acres of apple trees this year, but more opportunities for housing. Combine that with the great growing weather we've had in the region this summer, which means more apples per tree, and I think we'll see about the same numbers of migrants this year as in the past," she said.
Wurthen said the MFP staff, all of whom are bi-lingual, drive from Kansas City to Lexington every day during the 10-week project. Some of the services available to migrant families through MFP in Lafayette County this fall include legal counsel pertaining to immigration, workers rights and other legal issues; translation and interpretation services for medical, educational and legal situations, and medical and dental care, available through the Samuel E. Rodgers-Lafayette Clinic. Mammograms, optometry and birthing classes are available in Kansas City, facilitated through MFP.
More extensive dental treatment is offered in cooperation with the University of Missouri, Kansas City School of Dentistry.
Gladney said that Lafayette County migrant farm workers are medically underserved, so about three years ago, volunteer doctors and dentists from Cabot Westside and Samuel U. Rodgers Clinics in Kansas City opened a health clinic for low income people, mostly Hispanic migrant workers. The clinic, which grew out of identified needs of the immigrant community, now serves the whole Lexington area community, she said.
Emergency assistance services include food distribution, emergency food vouchers through Rural Missouri, Inc., and blankets, coats and food coupons through the federal Women, Infants and Children program. MFP staff can answer questions and help migrant workers complete applications for other government assistance agencies and programs such as food stamps, WIC, Medicaid and Social Security.
There are support groups for women and educational programs for children, teenagers and adults, including English as a Second Language and high school equivalency classes (GED) in Spanish.
Girl Scout Troop 59 from Odessa is sponsoring a Scout troop for both boys and girls in Lexington during the 10-week MFP project. Mindy McDermott of the Mid-Continent Council of Girls Scouts in Kansas City said the troop this year plans crafts and sports for 35 migrant kids. The Scouting program, as part of the Migrant Farmworkers Project, is supported by Catholic Charities of Warrensburg, the national Catholic Campaign for Human Development ,and Immaculate Conception Parish, where the meetings are held. McDermott said a different troop sponsors the migrant troop each year as a service project.
Other volunteers come to MFP through national organizations, including the Christian Brother's LaSallian Volunteers and Shared Horizons/Franciscan Volunteers of Wisconsin, Gladney said.
Even after the 10-week program ends and the migrant families move on each year, Gladney and the Legal Aid staff remain closely involved with the permanent migrant families in the Lexington area.
"This is a great program, and it's unique," she said. "We do what we do based on what the migrant workers say their needs are, not what some think tank thinks."