Tuesday, July 31, 2001

Count of migrant workers criticized

Fear, timing of Census to blame, say officials

The Associated Press

        LEXINGTON — The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau badly undercounted the number of migrant workers living on Kentucky farms, a farming official said.

        The 2000 Census data, which came out last March, said 711 agricultural workers live on farms across the state.

        “That's laughable,” said Rosa Martin, a farm worker health aide for more than 14 years. “How can anybody get those numbers?”

        Ms. Martin said many workers didn't want to be counted because they are in the country illegally. They avoided participating in the census, despite assurances from Ms. Martin and others that the results would be kept confidential.

        “When you live in fear, you don't trust anybody or anything,” Ms. Martin said.

        The workers aren't the only ones who are afraid of being counted. Some farmers don't want their workers counted for fear of repercussions.

        “They tell you they don't want their workers counted because they worry about being fined,” said Abdon Ibarra, Lexington's immigrant services coordinator. “This culture is fully informed of the consequences. The employers know the consequences.”

        Ron Crouch, director of the Kentucky State Data Center, said the inaccuracy of the figure also can be blamed on the time when the data is collected.

        “The census is taken in late March and early April which is not when most migrant workers are in Kentucky,” Mr. Crouch said. “That's before the agricultural season, which is late spring to early fall.”

        The lack of an accurate count of migrant workers living on farms underscores criticisms of the census' undercount of Hispa nics and other populations.

        Democratic members of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board announced this spring that the 2000 tally may have missed more than 45,000 Kentuckians.

        The counts determine how much state and federal funds flow into Kentucky.

        Ms. Martin and Mr. Crouch are unable to provide more reliable counts of workers living on farms.

        Last year Kentucky farmers were issued 2,700 work visas, which allowed them to recruit and employ nearly four times as many agricultural workers as those counted in the state.

        Under the program, farmers provide the workers' housing.

        And because visa workers represent just 8 to 10 percent of the state's tobacco work force, a large group of undocumented workers are also not reflected in the numbers, said Jody Hughes, an official with the state's Work Force Development Cabinet.

        Examples from individual counties underscore the disparity.

        Throughout the year, Owensboro tobacco farmer Rod Kuegel employs and houses as many as 12 workers hired through the visa program. He usually has four workers from April to Christmas and then hires an additional eight employees in August.

        “I would say there are 700 workers living on Daviess County farms during peak harvest time,” Mr. Kuegel said.

        But even during the slow part of the year, there are probably 25 agricultural workers living on farms in the area, Mr. Kuegel said.

        According to the census, Daviess County does not have any farm workers living on farms, while Shelby County has one.

        Shelby County has at least 25 to 35 workers living on farms, despite the large number who live in town, said Britanny Edelson, Shelby County Extension Office agricultural agent.


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