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Empty harvest: Migrant family faces hardships in Rantoul

RANTOUL— On a Saturday morning in October, trash overflowed from Dumpsters at the old Air Force hospital in Rantoul, where about 300 migrant farm workers and their families lived this summer and fall. Suitcases sat stacked on a picnic table; men walked around one another’s vehicles, looking under the hoods. Inside, the Ortiz family planned their 1,300-mile journey home to South Texas.

Brothers Ernesto and Isidro Ortiz, their wives — who are sisters — and their five children arrived in Rantoul in early July to detassel corn for Monsanto Company. When the hot fieldwork of summer was done, they stayed on to sort corn at Monsanto’s Farmer City plant.

For three months, the Ortiz family got up at 4:30 most mornings, rode a school bus to and from work, and returned to an aging building with few showers or toilets, little hot water and “plenty of mice.”

Some of the children worked alongside them rather than attend school because the family needed the money and because the parents said the kids, whose ages ranged from 6 to 19, were discriminated against and harassed by students and teachers at Rantoul schools.

The family came to Rantoul because there was no work in Texas. They said they left poorer than when they came.
“We don’t have any money, but we’re excited to be going home,” said Dora Ortiz, a 45-year-old mother of three. “I came with $1,500 and I’m going back with less.”

‘We work for our kids’

About 1,500 farm workers and their families travel from Texas and Mexico to Champaign and surrounding counties each year, according to the Community Health Partnership of Illinois. The organization provides medical and dental care to seasonal agricultural employees and their children.

They work for seed companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, Trisler, Syngenta and Remington. In the summer, they remove tassels from female corn so that it can be pollinated by a different variety of male corn growing nearby.

Detasseling, which Spanish-speaking workers call espiga, creates hybrid corn seed that companies sell to farmers in the spring. Some workers stay for la maicera, the fall corn harvest, when they remove damaged and diseased corn from the production line at the companies’ factories.

Most workers live in Rantoul, Champaign and Urbana in housing that ranges from decent to dangerous. Some live in furnished student apartments that are otherwise unoccupied in the summer. Others find themselves in dilapidated mobile homes, roach-infested apartments and unsafe houses.

This summer, about 300 workers and their children, including the Ortiz family, lived at the former Chanute Air Force Base hospital, at 100 E. Nightingale Ct., Rantoul.

The Ortiz family came from Weslaco, Texas, a community of 34,000 people near the Texas-Mexico border. Isidro Ortiz, Dora’s husband, works as an electrician in Texas, “but there hasn’t been any work lately,” he said through an interpreter.

His brother, Ernesto Ortiz, works in construction. “There’s no work there, and it’s very hot,” he said in Spanish.

Ernesto’s wife, Alejandra Ortiz, stood in a crowded kitchen inside the old hospital, making tacos for her husband and three children. “We have to come here to work,” Alejandra, 41, said through an interpreter. “We don’t have any options.”

Alejandra joked that she and Ernesto are already old. “We’re focused on our children now,” said Alejandra, who has spent much of her adult life as a migrant worker.
She and Ernesto married 22 years ago in a tiny northern Mexico ranching community where they grew up. “We want our children to study and have it better than we have it. We work for our kids, not ourselves,” Alejandra said.

‘Reliable and hard-working’

Pat Geneser remembers when local teenagers walked up and down the rows of corn, pulling tassels off the tops of stalks that the machines had missed. These days, local teens still make up 75 percent of employees hired by Monsanto to detassel in the summer, he said.

But nowadays, “kids have other opportunities that they didn’t have before,” said Geneser, who manages migrant labor for Monsanto’s North American operations. “You can go work in an air-conditioned McDonald’s.”

Geneser said Monsanto hired about 175 migrant farm workers in East Central Illinois to detassel this summer and about 200 migrant workers to sort corn at Farmer City during the fall.

“They are dependable; they come back year after year,” he said of migrant workers. “They’re reliable and hard-working.”

This year, Monsanto’s Farmer City plant processed 600,000 bags of its brand name DEKALB and Asgrow hybrid seed corn, which sells for $175 to $350 a bag. Farmers in DeWitt, Piatt, McLean, Champaign and Ford counties grew about 8,000 acres for Monsanto this year, Geneser said.

Members of the Ortiz family, including two teenage girls who chose to work rather than attend Rantoul Township High School, earned $8 an hour for detasseling and harvest work.

For the past two years, they worked six or seven days a week, loading the bus at 5 a.m. and getting home after dark, said Dora Ortiz, Alejandra’s older sister. This year, they were lucky to get 40 hours a week, she said. “Last year and the year before, we made $6,000 to $7,000,” Dora said.

The summer’s cool temperatures meant that detasseling and harvesting took more time than usual, Geneser said. But there was also less work to do every day. That’s because Monsanto and other seed corn companies planted far fewer acres in response to the declining price of corn.

Dora Ortiz said her family decided to return to Illinois this year because Monsanto’s contractor, Marcelo Mendoza, told them the hours would be the same as last year when they worked more than 60 hours a week.

Mendoza, who lives in Rantoul, and his brother, Javier, work as crew bosses for Monsanto. Crew bosses receive a flat payment from the company and are responsible for recruiting, transporting and managing migrant workers. Some crew bosses also are responsible for arranging housing, but Monsanto rents housing for its workers at the former hospital.

Marcelo Mendoza declined to comment for this article. Geneser said federal law requires that crew bosses and employees sign a disclosure stating the estimated time frame in which workers will be needed. However, he said, contractors should not promise a certain number of hours each week.

“They may have expected it to be the same amount of hours as last year in their own head,” Geneser said, adding that he has worked with the Mendozas more than 20 years and has never received a complaint that workers were misled. “They got less hours per day, but they got two more weeks of work that was not expected.”

Workers who do not receive the number of hours they are promised can sue the company under the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. “The company is responsible for making sure the recruiter is only saying what the company wants them to say,” says Miguel Keberlein Gutierrez, an attorney at the Illinois Migrant Legal Assistance Project in Chicago. But, he says, recruiters around the country routinely make verbal promises they know they cannot keep.

“How are you going to get people from South Texas to come to Rantoul, Illinois?” he asks. “If you tell them, ‘You’re only going to get 20 hours a week and live in a dump,’ no one is going to come.

“A lot of these companies are hedging their bets, hoping that these workers don’t learn of their rights or actually bring a case against them.”

In the last few years, Keberlein Gutierrez’s firm has filed complaints or reached out-of-court settlements with several seed companies in the state, including Monsanto, Trisler Seeds and its subsidiary, Golden Meadows, and Remington Seeds. All of the cases involved “broken promises” regarding wages, hours or living conditions, he said.

‘The conditions are worse this year’

The smell of burning oil and tortillas wafted around Dora Ortiz’s bedroom in the old base hospital. One daughter, Talia, 19, rested on a mattress that sagged to the floor while 17-year-old Zaira played a game on another bed. Dora sat at a table in the large room she shared with her daughters and her husband, Isidro.

A hotplate used to cook the family’s meal sat atop an old wooden dresser with the red-hot burner accidentally left on. Food collected from local churches was stacked on another cast-off dresser.

Dora pointed to a mouse as it ran under a bunk bed. “There weren’t mice (last year), but there are now,” she said. “The conditions are worse this year.”

Built in 1957, the former hospital was vacated when the Air Force closed the base in 1993. The building has operated as a state-licensed migrant worker facility called the Nightingale Camp since 2001.

That’s when a company called Unique Storage Inc. bought the property for $180,000, according to county tax records. State incorporation records show Rantoul resident Timothy Mathews, a real-estate developer, is company president.

Mathews also owns Quarters Inn and Suites, where the University of Illinois football team stays during summer practices. The Illini’s “Camp Rantoul” is around the corner from the Nightingale Camp, where migrant workers live.

Outside the hospital building, families socialized around picnic tables, hung out laundry on clotheslines and watched kids play on the shady lawn.

Inside, workers cooked meals in their bedrooms on hotplates or took turns cooking in cramped kitchens that were once nurse stations.

The sound of Latin music bounced off concrete floors and half-painted walls, drifting down dimly lit hallways and into large lobbies that were once the hospital’s waiting rooms. Here, some workers and their families gathered for church services and educational programs on the weekends. In the evenings, they watched Spanish-language television as they waited their turns to use the communal showers and toilets.

Like other parents with children, Ernesto and Alejandra Ortiz and their three children, ages 6, 13 and 17, slept in a single room. After living here for three months, Ernesto was ready to go home to his three-bedroom house in Texas, he said. “It’s a lot of effort to cook and shower,” he explained.

The Nightingale Camp complies with the state Migrant Labor Camp Code, according to the state Department of Public Health, which has inspected and licensed the facility for the last eight years. State law requires that any housing provided to workers for free by agricultural companies be inspected and licensed.

Three other facilities, located on East Washington in Urbana, Doolittle Boulevard in Rantoul, and County Road 1512 in Rantoul, also are licensed migrant camps.

“This is to ensure that workers have a safe and sanitary camp to reside in,” said Mark Kuechler, a regional engineer for the Illinois Department of Public Health who has supervised the inspection of Champaign County migrant camps for 30 years.

The state code requires that housing units be structurally sound; that mattresses are clean and at least 6 inches from the floor; and that there are no insects or pests. In addition, operators must provide at least one toilet for every 15 people and one shower for every 10 people.

Kuechler said he does not think his agency has ever refused to issue a license, although operators are supposed to correct violations before residents move in. He acknowledges however, that problems such as rodents and lack of hot water can occur after residents have lived in a camp for awhile.

The building’s manager, Jason Weber, contends the facility has ample shower and restroom facilities. The owners plan to add more water heaters next year, he said.

“We historically have not had an issue (with mice) nor received any complaints,” he wrote in an email. “We think that all the rain we had this year may have pushed one inside.”

State law also requires that kitchens be separate from bedrooms, and that camp operators provide refrigeration and at least one stove burner or hot plate per five people as well as smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Residents should not be cooking in their rooms, though it is up to the camp operators to enforce the rules, Kuechler said.

Weber insisted that stoves in the hospital’s kitchen work, though residents said they did not. “The truth is that the migrants prefer to cook in their rooms and probably told you that the stoves don’t work because our rules prohibit it and they don’t want to get in trouble,” Weber wrote.

“We have been told and we believe it to be true that we have the best migrant camp in the state,” Weber wrote. “Before we opened, migrant workers were living in rundown trailers all over town with no oversight by state or federal officials.”

He said many landlords still “don’t get inspected and put too many people in substandard housing.”

Kuechler of the state health department acknowledges that the 36-year-old migrant housing code needs to be updated. “It was written many years ago when housing was truly camps located on the farm,” he said. “Times have changed; there are new things like (workers living in) apartments and motels.”

Most worrisome to Kuechler is that the code does not require carbon monoxide detectors in camps, even though a 2007 state law requires such alarms in all Illinois residences.

Monsanto began renting the Nightingale Camp for its workers in 2001. Geneser, a 29-year Monsanto veteran, responded hesitantly when asked if he would want to live at the camp. “That’s not the type of housing I would expect to have, but I think I have seen migrant workers that have been in some very bad conditions, and I think this is a very good condition for them that we’re supplying at no charge.”

Alejandra Seufferheld studied migrant worker housing in Illinois and wrote about the old Air Force hospital in her 2006 doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois. Workers “think they have more serious problems” than housing, said Seufferheld, who is now outreach coordinator for the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of Illinois. Migrant families she interviewed at the hospital earned between $5,000 and $10,000 annually.

“If I had the money, we wouldn’t be here,” Alejandra Ortiz said. “But we would have to pay rent somewhere else.”

‘We’re just there for school’

Alejandra’s daughter, Iris Ortiz, a senior at Weslaco High School, was worried that she might not graduate when she returned to Texas. Iris explained why she chose to work with her parents this fall rather than attend Rantoul Township High School for the first two months of the school year.

“All the girls looked at us ugly and they wanted to fight us,” she said of her experience last school year at RTHS. “We’re not there to cause trouble. We’re just there for school.”

This summer, she said more than a dozen teenage boys from Rantoul High School barged into the hospital and threatened Iris’ boyfriend and other teens after they attended a meeting at the school.

Rantoul police confirmed they responded to a call at the migrant camp on July 24 in which a caller said two males were trying to start fights with Hispanic males, but no report was filed.

“Our family got scared,” Iris said. “When the police came, (the boys) ran.”

After being called “beaners” and “wetbacks” by students, Iris and her cousins said, teachers also harassed them for speaking Spanish. One teacher told a migrant student that his computer password would be “Mexico,” said Iris’s cousin, Zaira Ortiz.

Even after she complained to the principal, Zaira said teachers continued to single out migrant students who spoke Spanish. RTHS Principal Scott Amerio said he was aware of one such incident. In that case, an administrator spoke to the teacher. There is no policy against speaking Spanish at the school, he said.

Amerio hopes that a new liaison from the Regional Office of Education will help the school respond better to migrant students’ needs. “I believe that we do a very good job working with our migrant families,” he said. “When no other schools in the area wanted to run the migrant summer program, we offered to help and currently are the biggest summer migrant program in the state.”

But Zaira Ortiz, a pretty teenage girl wearing stylish jeans and black eyeliner, said she felt like an outsider at RTHS. She wanted to go to work with her parents, Isidro and Dora Ortiz, but she said they insisted she go to school.

Ernesto and Alejandra Ortiz decided not to send their children to school after a staff member at Eastlawn Primary School yelled at their 6-year-old son last year because he didn’t understand her. Alejandra said the principal did nothing about it when she complained.

Jason Wallace, the principal, said he did not remember the incident, but regretted if anyone felt uncomfortable at school. “Sometimes my lack of Spanish skills might lead to a misunderstanding,” he said, adding that he tries to have a bilingual teacher with him when he talks to Spanish-speaking parents.

This year, Alejandra’s 13-year-old son stayed home with his younger brother at the old hospital and watched TV all day while the rest of his family went to work.

“If they’re going to mistreat him, what’s the point?” Alejandra asked. Yet she acknowledged the decision could put her children behind in school. “He’s going to have to spend more time at school,” she said, adding that the Texas school district offers after-school tutoring for children of returning migrant workers.

‘We have to see how things will be’

It was cold and raining in mid-October when the Ortiz family finally left Rantoul to head home to Texas. Though they had planned to leave earlier, their trip had been delayed because someone slashed a tire on Ernesto’s truck.

The family decided to stay at the hospital and wait for their last paychecks, which they needed to buy a new tire, as well as gas, lodging and food for the trip.

Then another setback came. Dora Ortiz said the camp manager told everyone they had to leave. With little money for a motel, the family called a friend they had met while working in the fields, an elderly woman from South Texas who now lives in a mobile home in Rantoul.

“We slept on the floor,” said Dora’s daugher, Talia.

On payday, the Ortiz family began their three-day journey home, with less money than when they started. Yet, Dora said she cannot rule out the possibility they will come again next year.

“We have to see how things will be, if there is work,” she said.

By Shelley Smithson

 University of Illinois journalism student Paolo Cisneros contributed to this report.


¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.