Bill Maxwell

It was no isolated tragedy

On Nov. 28, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office called Dover-based Bingham On Site Sewers Inc. to the Silver Lane Mobile Home Park in Valrico. Luis Martinez, 2, had been missing almost 24 hours. A few volunteer searchers had discovered an 11-by-13-inch opening in the ground the night before. That opening was where the cap to the underground septic tank should have been.

Investigators asked On Site Sewers to pump out the septic tank's five feet of raw sewage. At the bottom of the tank, about 50 yards from where Luis had lived with his parents, who are strawberry pickers, and 2-month-old sister, workers found the boy's body and the missing lid. Reportedly, the tank had overflowed a month earlier.

At first glance, Luis' death may appear to be just another isolated tragedy in an out-of-the-way mobile home park for low-income people. But it is not an isolated event. The circumstances surrounding the tragedy illustrate the dangers that migrant farmworkers and their children face each day.

Most ordinary Americans and government officials ignore the stark living conditions and mistreatment of farmworkers who plant and harvest our produce.

Hours after Luis' body was recovered, Hillsborough County code enforcement inspectors came to Silver Lane and found several violations, including a second septic tank without a lid. Later, they reported that the park, owned by Kenneth Winter, was an illegal migrant labor camp. It is on an unpaved road that ends at a cul-de-sac. Winter also owns a second mobile home park nearby that operates as an illegal migrant labor camp.

Code enforcement officials have given Winter 30 days to fix the violations in the two parks and to get the proper permit to operate them as migrant camps. He has not been charged with a crime.

After being forced by Luis' death to come to two mobile home parks, code, health and law enforcement officials claimed that they were unaware of the living conditions out there. Ignorance, especially institutionalized ignorance, is no excuse. Given the availability of information with the click of a mouse or a phone call, to be ignorant is to be guilty of moral negligence and culpability.

Who do officials think live in those shacks and dilapidated mobile homes in Hillsborough's farming areas?

The conditions in Hillsborough are typical. Tens of thousands of the nation's approximately 3.5 million farmworkers and their children face a combination of physical injuries and health problems, some fatal, directly related to their living conditions. Not surprisingly, Florida ranks annually as one of the nation's most negligent and exploitative states.

According to the nonprofit Housing Assistance Council, funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to support low-income housing in rural areas, more than 52 percent of farm-worker housing units nationwide are crowded. Seventy-four percent of the households in crowded units have children. A council survey shows that crowded housing often lacks toilets, showers, bathtubs, stoves and refrigerators that work, making it impossible to store food safely, prepare warm meals or shower after long days in fields.

Farmworkers routinely come in direct contact with pesticides. The lack of laundry facilities in their housing exposes them to high levels of pesticide poisoning. More than a quarter of the places the council surveyed were directly adjacent to pesticide-treated fields. Many had broken windows and windows missing screens.

"Crowded conditions are associated with increased incidence of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza," council researchers wrote. "Lack of sanitary facilities, sanitary facilities located in sleeping areas, and broken cooking appliances can contribute to the contraction of hepatitis, gastroenteritis, and other conditions. … Water leakage and broken windows expose residents to irritants such as dust and mold, which can complicate respiratory problems such as asthma."

Further, some problems, such as sagging structural features, exposed electrical wiring, lead paint, broken steps and holes in floors, threaten the safety of farmworkers, especially young children. An uncapped septic tank is inexcusable.

My hope is that Luis' death will not be forgotten after it no longer generates vigils and headlines. I want the tragedy to put a human face on a group that remains invisible to most of us.

I cannot make the case for the rights of Florida farmworkers better than it was made in a 2005 joint letter by nine respected human rights groups to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: "The United States government should fulfill its responsibilities to protect agricultural workers in Florida from human rights violations and take steps to prevent further violations. The private sector, in particular the corporate sector, should comply with the law as well as recognize its role in ensuring that the human rights of its workers are respected."

Luis' death and the fact that two illegal migrant camps could operate in plain sight near State Road 60 tell me we have a long way to go.

It was no isolated tragedy 12/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 4, 2009 6:30pm]

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