Sunday, May 14, 2006

Migrant Worker Life and RGV Prospects

I have not been attentive to RGV politics or other goings on this week. I'm having some issues, as some people would say. Also, recently, my mother and I are beginning to see no other option than to migrate up north for the summer. Our job prospects are simply not interested. I had a shot at a good county job, but I didn't know I had an interview and blew my chance by not calling HR to ask. Everybody wants to pay minimum wage and hire you part-time. Many jobs that are full-time want to get away with minimum wage. The jobs that pay above minimum wage and hire full-time have a long list of applicants from which to choose. I can't seem to get past the interview. My options are limited in many cases because "a bachelor's degree is preferred". Those for which I do qualify without a degree don't want me because I'm so close to graduating. Those for which I don't qualify, well, I don't qualify.I've bought my last Sunday paper to check for jobs. It's pointless to continue into summer because summers are slow in the RGV. Business slows down and hiring slows down.
I'm being careful about where I apply because I was stuck in a small business before. Although your contribution means a lot to a small business, you don't have very many steps to go before you can't be promoted anymore. Last job gave me one raise in three years. Once you stop getting promoted, you can kiss any raises good-bye. Unfortunately, there aren't many businesses that offer a career-path in the RGV without a degree. I don't know; I'm just disappointed. I know how to get ahead, I've seen many people do it; lie on your resume or have connections. I have a damned self-image of myself that keeps me from lying. I keep telling myself that those who are dishonest will eventually get discovered. They never do; and they keep getting ahead. All one can do is try not to be cynical and have faith that the right thing will come along.
This brings me to something that bugged me recently. My daughter came home with a printout on which she had to write a report about migrant life. Let me tell you that migrant life is not so bleak as it was back in the 60s and 70s. Today, migrant work is a viable way of life. Many people, families do it year after year. The printout she had told exaggerated stories about how migrant workers work more than 8 hours per day, don't have basic amenities, work without benefits like health insurance, and other nonsense. The lies about migrant life apply equally to the lives of illegal immigrants. It's popular to paint migrants and illegals as "second-class" citizens who get the short end of the stick in life. Once you get past Falfurrias and you enter the United States, life is good. Let me dispel some of the lies out there about migrants and illegals.
For one, migrants and illegals work in the fields for farmers. Some farmers will set up housing on a piece of their property for their workers. Usually, these are mobile homes. They aren't the best available, but they're free and have water and electricity. Some farmers will lease barracks or camps for their workers to stay. Again, housing is free or very affordable. If you go up there and work as a "solo", or bachelor, you can even count on free transportation to and from work. If you have a family, some camps have transport, others don't. Still, that means your expenses are transportation and food. The "solos" with housing and transportation only need to worry about food.
So, what about food? Well, food stamps and Medicaid are considered income to the migrant and illegal immigrant mind. Upon arrival, one of the first orders of business is to apply for public assistance, if you have a family. If you are alone, then food really won't be a big problem. In any case, another expense just got eliminated. But wait there's more. Health insurance isn't a big deal because you may have Medicaid for your family. Only Dad is uninsured. Still, Dad can go to one of the free clinics available for migrant workers. Yes, there are free clinics. If somehow you can't make it on food stamps, there are food pantries that help the needy.
What about working more than 8 hour days? The nature of working in the fields is that you get paid more if you produce more. When you agree to work for a farmer, he'll let you choose how much work you will take on. You can take on as little or as much as you want. Keep in mind that if you choose enough work that can get done between 8 and 5, you won't make much money. You are better off choosing enough work to last you all day because you can then turn in more produce and earn more money. There isn't somebody walking around cracking a whip telling you to move it. Migrant workers have to be self-motivated enough to take on the heavy loads of work and carry out the work day after day for weeks during the harvest season. It's by choice that they are out there from dawn to dusk. If they wanted, they could knock off at 5 and go home.
You probably think that after all the hard work and long hours that life is tough for migrant workers. After the first week or two when your body gets adjusted to the strain, you don't really feel pain anymore. You may have a little bit of muscle soreness, but nothing like the first few days. In fact, in areas where there are sufficient migrants around, local bars and halls will have Mexican dances. People will drive 30 or 40 miles after work to have a good time at a baile. Most migrants schedule their work so that they will have either Saturday and Sunday or just Sunday off. Migrant workers go to church too. In areas with sufficient migrants, the priest will have a mass in Spanish. Also on Sundays, migrants will go shopping for groceries, go eat out at a restaurant, go to the flea market, and look for a nice used car. Maybe once a month, migrants go to the big city to shop for school clothes, electronics, visit a tienda Mexicana, or just go sight-seeing.
Even if they don't go out on the weekend, migrants will hang out at the camp. Guys will be outside chatting, fixing cars, drinking beer, and sometimes barbecuing. The women may be busy doing laundry, chatting, or preparing the barbecue side dishes. Parents don't worry about their kids running around because most of the camps are out in the boonies. There is plenty of space for them to run around and nothing that will get them in trouble.
What about childcare? What about it? If you have young kids, there are programs like the Texas Migrant Council that provide daycare for pre-school children. TMC is like Head Start except they are seasonal. There is also summer school for the older kids. If your kids are 12 or older, they go with mom and dad to work or just hang out in the fields while mom and dad are working. Of course, some parents will hire a girl in the camp to watch over their kids while they are working. Childcare is not an issue.
Suffice it to say, many of the people who are "pro-immigrant" and like to tell how bad illegal aliens have it don't really know their left from their right. The illegals with whom I've worked don't have the challenges that are alleged by advocates. For about $150 you can buy an identity with social security card to get a job. So long as they don't try to file a tax return and work seasonal jobs at different locations, they'll get away with it. They have access to all of the programs established to help migrant workers. The label Migrant Worker has "/illegal alien" in between but is generally not written. Migrant work generally lasts one or two generations until the family produces their first college graduate. For most people, it's not a lifelong career. It's just a seasonal cash cow that has to be milked until better things come around.
In my case, I'm in a tight spot and there is money up north just waiting for me to harvest it from grateful employers. Life has improved in the Rio Grande Valley, but our employment methods are out of sync with the rest of the country. With a perpetually high unemployment rate, employers here can pick and choose their applicants and set higher standards with lower pay. This works for them, I suppose. Sometimes the best way to beat somebody at their game is not to play. I refuse to be duped into working for less money than I need to get ahead. I have a specific need to be able to meet my goals. As much as I love the Rio Grande Valley and advocate its growth and prosperity, I have to admit that I can make a better living working with menial labor up north than I can here at computers, clerical, or other "easier" work. I can't afford to sacrifice my and my family's well-being for the benefit of my employer any longer. Loyalty has not paid off in the least. In fact, you are better off as a migrant than trying to get by in the Rio Grande Valley.
Before closing, let me illustrate to you how absurd wages are in the RGV. Poverty is around $20k or less. Divided into 52 weeks and 40 hours a week, that's about $9.50/hr, if you don't take a vacation. Hidalgo County, for instance, has many job listings at around $16K to $20K. This week's job listings:
Sheriff's Dept. Communications Officer: $ 24,540.04 - $ 25,562.54
Truck Driver II: $18,000
Maintenance I (Road and bridge/parks): $20,800
Heavy Equipment Operator II (precinct 3): $20,800
Truck Driver III: $23,705
RN Supervisor: $52,788
LVN: $44,658-46,518
Head start Teacher: $23,483
Lifeguard (temp): $8.50/hr
Bus Driver/Maintenance: $16,868
Notice that some of these listings are for less than $20k or hover right at the poverty line. After taxes, insurance, and other deductions, how much do you think these workers will have left over? This is our county government paying these wages. The job I wanted pays around $24k. It's hardly exciting for most technical people who expect to make $30-$40k. It was great for me as I've never earned more than $16k in the RGV with three jobs, and I would have taken it had I made it to the interview. I will give kudos to the City of McAllen. They have made an effort to provide a "living wage" to their employees. They are to be commended for their respect for their workforce. I guess what I'm saying is that if you don't have a degree in the RGV, most people cannot expect to make a reasonable living. This is a big contributing factor to talent leaving the RGV for greener pastures. Things are good here, but can stand some improvement.

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