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Latino farmworkers are frozen out of work after Texas storm iced citrus, other crops

Suzanne Gamboa
·5 min read
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The Arctic air that whipped into Texas last month put this season's Rio Grande Valley harvest on ice, and it has left many farmworkers with no or very little work.

Paulina, 74, usually harvests crops in the fields of the Rio Grande Valley from 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. But she said her work hours have been drastically cut.

"Right now it's very little [work], because the ice fell and we lost work [and] all the plants," said Paulina, whom NBC News is identifying only by her first name because she is undocumented, like at least half of the country's farm laborers.

There is work with the onion crop, but the yield is expected to be reduced, leaving less work and competition for the jobs.

"We go two or three hours, no more. We are in the house because there is not much work," she said in Spanish, saying the lack of work affects "many people, many people."

Storm's severe fallout on citrus, greens, trees

The winter storm froze many of the region's crops, particularly the citrus on the trees and blooms that would produce next year's crops of grapefruit, oranges, lemons and some limes, said Juan Anciso, a professor who is a vegetable specialist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

"We lost the remaining fruit that was on the trees. They froze, and we also are going to lose next year's crop, because this is the time that the blooms start to set," Anciso said. "They need the foliage. It got interrupted, so there will be no crop next year, for sure, on the 23 to 26,000 acres of citrus."

Citrus trees were covered in snow and ice when temperatures dropped below freezing during the peak of the cold weather. (Courtesy Dale Murden / via Texas Farm Bureau)
Citrus trees were covered in snow and ice when temperatures dropped below freezing during the peak of the cold weather. (Courtesy Dale Murden / via Texas Farm Bureau)

The citrus harvest usually runs from mid-September to about late May. February and early March are the usual bloom time for oranges and other citrus that will produce next year's crop.

The frost "hurt severely" some of the crops of leafy greens, beets, Swiss chard, celery, cabbage, collards and parsley, according to Anciso.

After the snow melted and temperatures warmed up, the citrus trees began turning brown. (Courtesy Dale Murden / via Texas Farm Bureau)
After the snow melted and temperatures warmed up, the citrus trees began turning brown. (Courtesy Dale Murden / via Texas Farm Bureau)

The storm also caused limb damage, and trees younger than 3 years are "probably dead, as well," he said. New wood is important for fruit to set.

The early loss estimate from the crops alone is $300 million; that doesn't include the ripples to the area's economy, from the impact on other jobs associated with farming to the decrease in spending by farmworkers.

The 'most vulnerable'

"The entire U.S. depends heavily on the farmworkers," said Elizabeth Rodriguez, a farmworker justice advocate with La Union de Pueblo Entero, or LUPE. "When devastation hits ... they are the ones most vulnerable, and it is time for the rhetoric to change around undocumented workers. We need to recognize them as human beings and contributors to our community."

Unlike other migrant farmworkers in other parts of the country, Paulina and her fellow farmworkers in the Rio Grande Valley don't travel because of Border Patrol checkpoints on highways, Rodriguez said.

"We are counties that are right up against the border, and we are caught between the border and checkpoints," Rodriguez said. "A lot of farmworkers are here undocumented. They can't go through the checkpoint, so they are stuck here."

Image: (Delcia Lopez / The Monitor via AP)
Image: (Delcia Lopez / The Monitor via AP)

Paulina, who is from Mexico, has been in the U.S. for at least 12 years. She said farmworkers always fear going out, even to work, because of "police in the streets." For the same reason and because many workers don't have cars, they haven't been able to get coronavirus vaccinations. The clinic is about a 30-minute drive from her community, she said.

She and her husband, son and daughter live in a trailer that she said is very "fragile" and didn't hold up well in the cold. Their son also works in the field, despite having a disabled leg.

The family lost water and power, and food spoiled in the cold, she said. Store shelves have been empty. They don't get government assistance; the help they do get comes from LUPE, which has served them meals during the freeze, Paulina said.

Rodriguez said that some workers are able to get jobs replanting and that some may be able to help salvage some of the watermelon crop, which was just beginning to be planted and is harvested in May.

Some of the men are able to get some work in construction or yard work, but the freeze killed off plants and lawns, which would have stopped landscaping work for now.

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Undocumented workers didn't qualify for stimulus checks in last year's pandemic relief measures. In the second relief bill, passed in December, those who use tax ID numbers to file taxes were allowed to get relief.

Under the Democrats' sweeping immigration bill, which incorporates many of President Joe Biden's proposals, farmworkers who pass background checks and can show that they worked 400 days or 2,300 hours over the past five years could apply for legal permanent residence and be eligible to apply for citizenship after three years.

The bill would require support from 10 Republicans to pass in the Senate.

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, and Sens. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have also introduced legislation that would provide an immediate path to citizenship for 5 million essential workers, including farmworkers.

Biden held a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Monday in which he was expected to discuss a guest worker program for about 600,000 to 800,000 workers a year, The Associated Press reported.

Paulina said that's the help the farmworkers want.

"I would like for them to support us with a permit so we would be able to walk around here without fear," she said.

This story first appeared on NBCNews.com.