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Displaced farm workers deserve help

Esteban Almeda is an American citizen. For nearly 20 years, he was a farm laborer for A. Duda & Sons. He and his family lived in a mobile home on company property on the edge of Lake Apopka.

His children were born and reared in the area and attended Lake County schools. Teachers say they were well-adjusted, good students who had plenty of friends. A few weeks ago, the Almedas were forced to move to Mission, Texas, to stay with relatives in a run-down, crowded house.

What has happened to the Almedas is a human rights tragedy. They, along with several hundred other farm workers like them, are the undeserving victims of an insensitive bureaucracy that takes no interest in their plight.

On June 30, 1998, the St. Johns River Water Management District and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service shut down the muck farms on Lake Apopka's shores. This action was taken to clean up the once-pristine lake that has become a pea-green broth as a result of more than 50 years of farming.

After the farms closed, nearly 400 farm-worker families, mostly Hispanic, who lived in labor camps in the impacted area, were forced to move. Under provisions of the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Real Property Acquisition Act of 1970, the workers, many of whom owned their homes, are supposed to receive cash to find new housing. Those forced to relocate had 18 months to apply for assistance.

"When the government displaces people, they have to make sure they don't suffer in the interim," said Greg Schell, managing attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.

Nearly 14 months later, however, no workers have received a dime.

Why? USDA officials claim the water management district waited months to tell them workers were being displaced. After learning about the displacements, the USDA initially argued that the workers did not qualify for federal money. Schell and his office struggled for weeks to convince the officials otherwise.

But the real crime is that _ as the 18-month deadline nears _ the USDA still has no system for accepting applications from the farm workers.

"Unfortunately, the process of locating and entering into an agreement with a contractor to begin the process of determining relocation benefits under the URA has been progressing much slower than the department anticipated," wrote USDA Associate General Counsel David Harris in a recent letter to Schell.

"If this had been middle-class white folk, the funding would have been in place before the work," Schell said. "These folks are unfamiliar with the system and reluctant to complain."

Of course, Schell is right. Months before the farms closed, officials had arranged to pay the 14 farmers on the lake's northern shore a whopping $91-million for the land, plus an appraised value of $29-million in equipment acquired during the buy-out.

Farm worker advocates, who are trying to help the workers get money to relocate, are working against the clock in more than one way. Each passing week, workers such as the Almedas are scattering throughout the country, making tracking them more difficult. When, and if, the USDA develops an application process, many workers qualified to receive relocation money will be long gone and may not know that they had money coming to them.

In addition to federal officials, including Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, Schell has written to U.S. Sens. Bob Graham and Connie Mack and to U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum. Without committing themselves, Mack and McCollum responded with brief letters. Graham, who rarely does anything to help farm workers, has not responded.

Such foot-dragging is unacceptable. More than a year before the farms were shut down, representatives of the Farmworker Association of Apopka pleaded with the water agency and local government officials to begin looking into relocation benefits for the soon-to-be-unemployed field hands.

Schell said the USDA's Harris claimed the agency probably will start accepting worker applications within a month. "This is the first hopeful thing I've heard," he said. "But we'll just have to wait and see. Time is running out on these farm workers."

Meanwhile, Esteban Almeda would like to use the money owed him to return to the Apopka area, where he can find a suitable home for his family, where his children can attend school with friends. The relocation project may owe his family as much as $10,000 _ no small sum for poor people who lost everything to government displacement and bureaucratic insensitivity.

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