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Migrants Driven North by Southeast Drought, Texas Oil Bust

August 18, 1986

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) _ A Sun Belt slump is forcing thousands of seasonal farm workers to search for greener pastures in the North, but many are finding only new places to be unemployed.

The migration northward, sparked largely by the Southeast drought and the Texas oil slump, is taxing social service agencies unprepared for the influx of people, many of whom are arriving without arrangements for homes or jobs.

″There isn’t enough work to go around, so there is a lot of unemployment,″ said Manuel Gonzales, head of migrant services for Michigan’s Department of Social Services.

″Back in ’81 or ’82, when we were hurting, you had a flow of people going down to Texas,″ he said. ″Now we’re seeing migration in reverse.″

The Southeast crop failures have altered the traditional migrant ″stream,″ a northward migration keyed to varying harvest times in different regions. Officials say the drought has caused many migrants to bypass drought-stricken regions and head north.

The oil slump in Texas and the closing of some textile mills in the South have created a new class of first-time migrant workers who can’t find work at the mills or oil fields.

Officials say these two groups this year have headed to states where farm work is considered relatively plentiful.

″We are seeing some real changes and it’s a combination of a lot of factors,″ said Beverly Barringer, a Michigan Employment Security Commission field technician.

Barringer said her 11-county territory, which encompasses the Michigan fruit belt, had 8,300 migrant workers last month, compared with 5,000 in July 1985. Statewide, the number of migrants registered for employment was 16,493, compared with 14,550 last year.

″The big increase this year seems to be related to the economic conditions in Texas,″ said Ray Yeutter, an MESC field technician.

In Indiana, the number of migrants this season also is up, although officials won’t have exact numbers until fall, said David Roellgen, deputy director of the Indiana Department of Aging and Community Services.

″All the social services groups are being taxed, especially clothing and food banks,″ he said.

Migrant workers traditionally have followed three loosely defined streams northward in the East, the Midwest and the West. But the shortage of farm work has changed that, officials say.

″What’s happening is the streams are mixing,″ said Donna Fantozzi, a planner with the Illinois Migrant Council.

In Illinois, Fantozzi said there has been a sharp increase in the number of migrants this year from Florida. She also said there are some who used to work in oil fields in Texas seeking farm labor in Illinois.

″The total number of migrants has been stable in Illinois over the last three years,″ she said. ″It’s the nature of who the workers are that seems to be changing.″

In addition, mechanization has reduced jobs. Fantozzi’s organization estimates that only 10,000 of the 17,000 migrant workers who will travel through the state this year will find jobs.

″They used to come with jobs and housing all lined up,″ Fantozzi said. ″Now, they come not knowing whether there are jobs or housing.

″It’s based on word of mouth ... The problem is many times those jobs (they’ve heard about) don’t exist,″ she said.

Such is the case in Pennsylvania, where migrant workers found that the drought had extended into the south-central part of the state, crippling peach, apple and cherry crops.

″Many people have come up and they haven’t had a place to work,″ said Amada Kendall, community food and nutrition coordinator for Pennsylvania Farmworker Opportunities Inc.

Hundreds of migrant workers arrived earlier than usual because of the drought, and the agency has been working with local missions to find housing and food for migrants who can’t find work, she said.

Social service agencies say they’re feeling the strain of the new migrant wave.

″What happens is the depressing situation of not being able to assist some people. There are people living in cars,″ said Raul Gonzalez, interim director for the Grand Rapids office of Michigan Economics for Human Development.

Some states try to prevent influxes of migrants who gamble on finding work. Mareo Cadena Jr., director of Wisconsin’s Migrant Law Enforcement Bureau, said the state doesn’t expect an increase no matter how bad conditions get elsewhere, partly because state law requires that migrants have a work agreement from a Wisconsin employer before coming to the state.

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