Thursday, July 08, 2004 Former farmworker assumes complicated role

NEW CARLISLE — On a dusty road that bisects the rows of young maple trees, five Mexican workers take time from the backbreaking labor in the orchard to chat with Benito Lucio.

His khakis and crisp white shirt set him apart from the others, who wear bandannas and hats to shield themselves from the hot sun.

But Lucio knows all about their hard work. For years, he spent summers toiling in these Ohio fields before attending college and “leaving the migrant stream.”

Quickly, talk turns to immigration.

“My son has been waiting for years,” one worker said. He applied to come to the United States but hasn’t heard anything.

Lucio explains the application forms and tells the men they have to pay attention to the dates and deadlines. And they have to keep checking with immigration officials.

“I can’t tell them enough how important it is to be diligent. There are dates and priority numbers, and they need to pay attention or they’ll have to start all over again,” he said. “They have to document everything.”

Lucio, 48, is Ohio’s migrant advocate, a position set up in every state to ensure that the thousands of migrant workers coming here each summer are treated fairly.

He investigates complaints of worker abuse and connects workers with growers. And Lucio coordinates interactions between dozens of advocate agencies.

This can be tricky.

He is both advocate and bureaucrat, a dual role that earns him both praise and criticism from his constituency. His job is complicated as well by the nature of his clientele, whose members often are here illegally and, therefore, are difficult to track.

He’s empowered to document problems in an industry where it’s impossible even to get an accurate count of the work force.

The Ohio Migrant Census that Lucio put together showed there were 15,193 migrant workers in the state. But that excluded a host of categories, including farmers already living in Ohio, dairy workers, residents of unlicensed migrant camps and the thousands of undocumented workers.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates 65 percent of workers nationally are here illegally; Lucio and others say that’s a conservative estimate.

“It can be a real challenge. But I’m not in the business of immigration. I don’t ask them about their status, but sometimes they tell me anyway,” he said. “Then I can’t really help them. And that’s hard.”

Critics say the watchdog for migrant labor should not also work for a government agency that prompted the complaints in the first place. They argue that the monitor advocates are forced to follow regulations that do not work for an undocumented migrant population.

Lucio acknowledged his job is unlike that of other activists.

He tries to solve issues through legal channels and documentation.

“Twenty years ago, I wasn’t like this. I wanted to go in and storm the world, too. But there are better ways to solve problems,” he said.

In 1974, farmworker advocates sued the U.S. Department of Labor, saying that state employment offices were pigeonholing Mexican workers into certain agriculture jobs.

Baldemar Velasquez is the leader of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a Toledo-based union that was among dozens of plaintiffs at the time.

Velasquez said he remembers as a kid going with his father to the unemployment offices in Texas and Florida.

“He’d go there after he lost his job in the factory. When he got in line for factory jobs, they’d tell him, ‘You’re in the wrong line. You need to be in the line for farmworkers.’

“They had another line just for Mexicans,” he said.

To settle the class-action lawsuit, the federal government required every state to have a monitor advocate who would look out for farmworkers. Ohio’s position is part of the Department of Job and Family Services.

The system doesn’t work like it should, Velasquez said.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee and a few other activist groups often are at odds with the state-monitor advocates. Velasquez said the position is good for helping workers find food, shelter and other immediate needs. But, he said, it doesn’t solve the underlying problems, including inequality for migrant workers.

“When I think of advocacy, I don’t think of referring someone to a food pantry. To me, that’s not enough,” he said.

Some advocates also question whether Lucio’s by-the-book approach works with a largely unregulated industry such as migrant farming.

Shelley Davis, co-executive director of the Farmworker Justice Fund, a national advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said she worries that a state employee can’t freely fight for workers’ needs.

“There are good people in those positions,” she said. “I’m just not sure how well it works in practice.”

A second-generation Mexican-American, Lucio had been traveling to Ohio since 1968 to pick cucumbers and tomatoes with his parents and six younger siblings. Every summer he’d work the fields in Wood County and play sports with the local boys.

“I grew up in a time where if you spoke Spanish, you were punished,” he said. “We were told, ’You’re migrant workers. You’re never going to make it.’ We heard that so many times as kids it was a joke.”

Then a worker in the migrant-education program befriended Lucio and told him about college. Lucio enrolled at Bowling Green State University, where, although he had spent much of the previous six years in Ohio, he had to pay out-of-state tuition.

His migrant-worker status was the problem.

Lucio said university officials helped change that. Now the Ohio Board of Regents allows migrant workers and their dependents to pay in-state tuition if they work for three years in Ohio.

Lucio dropped out a year later and was hired to recruit students for the same education program that told him about Bowling Green.

“I’m not sure how I got the job. All I knew was sports and picking pickles,” he said.


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