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Advocacy groups challenging this California state housing rule say it uproots farmworkers' children from schools

More than 30 community organizations and advocates are ramping up their efforts to reverse a California housing rule that they say uproots the children of migrant farmworkers from their schools twice a year, causing them to fall behind and often drop out.

The regulation from the California Department of Housing and Community Development, known as the “50-mile rule,” requires farmworkers to clear out of state-run migrant camps at the end of a growing season and move more than 50 miles away. On Wednesday, farmworker advocates and nonprofits, including the Center for Farmworker Families and the Food Empowerment Project, asked the state agency to reconsider their petition to exempt families with school-aged children from relocation.

The petitioners say the move is their latest effort to have the policy changed after four years of fruitless negotiations with state agency officials and at least one failed legislative proposal. The frustration culminated in a formal petition in December and a protest that drew nearly 30 people at the department’s headquarters in Sacramento.

But the agency rejected the request in June.

“It just feels like we have been stonewalled time and time again, and there’s no evidence that they have been willing to do anything,” said Lauren Ornelas, founder and executive director of the Food Empowerment Project. “While they are talking about it, children aren’t graduating from high school.”

State agency officials counter that their search for a solution hasn’t ended. Their latest meeting in late June brought together about 50 migrant workers and representatives from community organizations and housing authorities.

Many argued to keep the agency’s rule in place given the high demand and limited supply of migrant farmworker housing, said Evan Gerberding, a spokeswoman for the housing department.

“There are two sides to this issue,” she said. “But the bottom line is that everyone wants the same outcome: for farmworkers to have an affordable place to live, and for their children’s school year not to be disrupted.”

The state’s Office of Migrant Housing runs 24 farmworker centers that house roughly 12,000 farmworkers each year. The housing program was created in the 1970s for agricultural workers who make their livelihood following crops across the country, according to the state’s housing and community development department. In California, that planting and harvesting season runs from April through October.

But to be eligible for the subsidized lodging, farm laborers must comply with the 50-mile rule, which farmworker advocates say was established when most workers tended to be men without families. California is the only state nationwide that designates such a specific distance requirement, researchers say, and it causes about 3,500 children to withdraw from their schools each year.

The constant shuffling leads to poor academic performance. Out of migrant students who in 2016 took standardized tests given to third through eighth grades and eleventh-graders across the state, 76% did not meet the standard in language arts, and 83% did not meet the standard in math, according to one study in the petition. Another found that in 20 years at the Buena Vista farmworker center, not one student who had to change districts had received a high school diploma.

State officials say any action that could be taken to change or eliminate the 50-mile rule would require an amendment to the regulation. That involves an official public participation process and can take up to two years.

Meanwhile, a legislative proposal pending in the state Senate seeks to spur the construction of more farmworker housing through tax credits. It would allow the state to operate the migrant farm labor centers for up to 95 additional days, but its costs are unknown.

Farmworker advocates argue that the state agency has the authority to change its regulations on its own.

“The one thing that gets parents out bed at 5 a.m. and into the fields by 7 a.m. to work a 10-hour day is the thought that by doing this, their kids will have a better future,” said Ann López, director Center for Farmworker Families. “This 50-mile rule steals it from them.”

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jazmine.ulloa@latimes.com

@jazmineulloa

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