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Oregon's agriculture relies on 'illegal' workers
Farmworkers, documented or not, need decent housing
August 18, 2005
Memo to folks upset about illegal immigration: Don't talk with your mouth full. Sure, illegal means against the law. Undocumented workers and their children drive up costs for schools, hospitals and other services. The United States can't sustain its current standard of living if everyone in the world insists on sharing it.
But: This country relies on undocumented workers to produce much of its food. Unless Americans plan to start growing their own -- and canning, freezing and butchering it -- there is no way to root out all illegal immigrants and send them to where they came from.
That's especially true in Oregon, where agriculture has hit a record-high value of $4.1 billion per year. The U.S. Labor Department estimates that undocumented workers make up more than half the nation's agricultural work force. California growers put the figure closer to 90 percent in some areas. Either way, the Western agricultural economy depends on labor from "illegals."
It's hot, grimy, often backbreaking work. Laborers endure long days while the harvest is on; then, just as suddenly, their jobs and income end.
Older Oregonians may wax nostalgic about how picking strawberries formed their character. But their children and grandchildren prefer to earn minimum wage in a big-box store or fast-food outlet rather than the local berry fields. That socked local strawberry growers this summer, when berries rotted on vines for want of pickers.
Somehow, this nation must find a reasonable way to accommodate the workers who pick its pears and process its chicken parts. Congress slowly is moving toward a solution with help from Oregon's delegation.
Meanwhile, the agricultural workers who are here -- whether legally or not -- need decent housing. For decades, Oregonians turned a blind eye to labor camps that often were crowded and unsafe. That is changing thanks to farmworker-housing complexes such as Colonia Libertad, which opened last weekend in southeast Salem.
The 48-unit development offers families year-round housing for affordable rent. Some have been homeless, living under bridges or in cars. Already the waiting list has more than 30 names on it.
The Farmworker Housing Development Corp., which built the complex in partnership with the city of Salem, deliberately located it in town. That's also the case with the group's three farmworker projects in Woodburn and another to open in Independence.
An urban location makes it easier for tenants to get to schools, health care and jobs. There's a less obvious benefit, too: It renders these families visible, as they should be.
Yes, many of them are here illegally. But yes, Oregon agriculture would fall apart without them.
Thanks to their hard work, Oregonians have fresh food and a thriving farm economy.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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