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Chill Hits Migrants, Crops Hard in Texas

With four children, Luis Silva can't find field work; already he has lost $5,000, half his annual income

TOURISTS making winter pilgrimages to the Rio Grande Valley are usually treated to a pastoral setting with lush, verdant orchards and cropland. But not this year. Temperatures that plunged below freezing for days in December withered the usual bounty in south Texas, hurting the regional economy and accentuating the plight of migrant workers who tend these fields.

Thousands of mostly Hispanic workers who depend on the region's now decimated citrus groves and vegetable fields have seen meager incomes fall dramatically, says Guy Bevil, director of the Hidalgo County American Red Cross.

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Luis Silva of Weslaco, Texas - a farm worker for 18 years - has felt the weather chill his personal finances. ``We don't have any work right now because the fruit all froze,'' Mr. Silva says. ``The vegetables did, too.'' Through a translator, Silva estimates he will lose as much as $5,000 because of the freeze - half of his family's income last year. His wife often works with him in the fields. Their four children, ages 17 through 8 years, do not.

This human toll extends throughout the 10 counties in south Texas, which was declared a federal disaster area. Fields here, which would be in harvest, are barren. ``It looks like they dropped a bomb,'' said Ann Williams Cass, past director of the Farm Workers' Ministry for Holy Spirit Catholic Parish in McAllen, Texas.

With this year's crop of oranges and grapefruit wiped out, and next year's in doubt, growers and owners are coping with a major setback, says William Wallace of the Texas Citrus Mutual. With damage to trees unknown, economists are still calculating the overall costs.

But the area's farm workers already know what it has cost them.

Jose and Prisca Ovalle and their four children were getting by on $74 a week from her disaster relief payments and his unemployment benefits. His unemployment checks have stopped, and the family is unsure about the future.

Mr. Ovalle's family, as well as Mr. Silva's, will travel north in May for work in Michigan's tomato and cucumber fields along with many other migrants. This year they may need to borrow money from their Northern employers to afford the trip.

The National Migrant Resource Program estimates that just under 350,000 migrants work the south Texas fields are affected by the freeze. They are among 1 million workers that the program estimates fan out each year through the Midwest, with a few migrating to the West Coast, Northeast, and Florida.

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The Texas migrants are one of three streams of migrant farm workers, along with groups living in Florida and California, says Bobbi Ryder, director of the National Migrant Resource Program. Estimates put the nation's migrant population at 5 million, she says. Since the freeze, farm work in south Texas is almost nonexistent. ``It's like closing down a factory in a large urban area,'' Ms. Ryder says. With nowhere else to turn, many are waiting in long lines for unemployment benefits.

In the wake of the freeze, need far outpaces resources in places like Hidalgo County, on the Texas-Mexico border. ``This is already the poorest county in the United States. We have the highest unemployment and the lowest per capita income,'' Bevil says.

In normal times, the migrant farm worker's best season in south Texas is September to April, when crops need to be weeded, hoed, and harvested.

But even in the best of times, a migrant family's existence is marginal by US standards. ``They are living in third-world conditions,'' Cass says. Some Texas farm worker ``colonias'' or communities that dot the countryside lack electricity and running water.

Still, government programs and private social agencies have chipped away at some of the old injustices. ``We're working together more closely than I've seen in 15 years,'' Bevil says. Help is also coming from previously uninvolved sources.

During the freeze, groups of retired plumbers, among ``winter Texans'' visiting the area, went into colonias to teach farm workers to repair burst pipes.

Recent laws also require toilet facilities and drinking water in the fields. Texas has approved unemployment pay for farm workers. Texas' right-to-know laws inform farm workers about how to safely work around pesticides, etc. ``I'm real happy to say compliance is high,'' Martinez says. One help has been the Little Rock, Ark.-based Migrant Student Record Transfer System, which tracks academic records for 700,000 migrant farming and fishing students.

``We keep telling them it's very hard work, and that's why they should do well in school,'' says Mr. Ovalle about his children. His education stopped at the third grade.

Though not much can be done about lack of work due to bad weather, the focus has fallen on retraining for displaced workers. The United Farm Workers union is asking Texas to fund programs that teach skills at the same rate they fund research to make agriculture less labor intensive.

Of the migrant workers' plight, Bevil says: ``I think it's getting better. Slowly, but surely.''

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