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Citrus Workers May Be Frozen Out of New Life : Workplace: Many recently legalized farm laborers lost jobs because of the big freeze. But they have no right to apply for public assistance.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura Orozco, a Tulare County orange picker, became a permanent resident of the United States eight weeks ago. That move was designed to give security and stability to his life as a farm worker; today, it is threatening his family’s survival.

A month ago, the Arctic Express swooped through California, destroying the citrus crop and costing Orozco and his wife, Gloria Lemus, their jobs. The very law that ensures Orozco’s right to work in the United States also prohibits him from receiving most forms of public assistance.

“All I want is food stamps so I can feed my children,” Orozco said.

And he cannot get them.

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Section 210(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act prohibits newly legalized workers from receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, MediCal and food stamps for five years.

Designed to keep legalized immigrants from becoming “public charges,” it does not take into account disasters such as the two-week freeze, which threw thousands out of work and caused such widespread unemployment that new jobs are impossible to find.

Thousands of Central Valley farm workers like Orozco and Lemus have unwittingly jeopardized their well-being for a shot at citizenship, access to public assistance for a future in the United States. Even those who could receive food stamps for their U.S.-born children are hesitant to ask for them.

They fear that any show of need could threaten their hard-won right to work in this country legally. Consider Lidia Avila, who worked in a Lindsay packing house before the freeze and whose son, Salvador Jr., was born here.

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“We won’t accept help if it will affect our status,” she said.

State officials could petition the federal government for a waiver of Section 210(f), to allow farm workers to receive public assistance without jeopardizing their legal status in the United States.

Social service workers and the unemployed alike contend that such action is necessary if Central Valley farm workers are to survive the winter. No request for a waiver has been made to date, federal authorities said.

An estimated 15,000 workers in the Central Valley have lost their jobs because of the freeze. Authorities still are not sure how many of those unemployed will be able to receive public assistance other than unemployment. Private organizations will be forced to pick up the slack, and they are already overwhelmed by the area’s need.

“There is a large number of undocumented workers, and they are not eligible for assistance,” said Lali Moheno, community service coordinator for a Visalia organization called Community Service and Employment Training Inc. “Even the ones in the process of getting documentation are not eligible. Even the ones who have received documentation are ineligible for five more years.”

In Tulare County alone, there are at least 1,500 seasonal agricultural workers who have recently gained permanent residency. For them, the only public assistance is unemployment, and then only if they have worked enough in the previous year to qualify.

Unemployment payments last 26 weeks at most, and for many workers the payments will end before the next citrus harvest--and, therefore, the next job--begins in October. Under normal circumstances, the Valencia orange harvest would begin in late spring. But state agriculture experts have written off Central Valley Valencias as a total loss.

Even if a family does receive unemployment compensation, the payments fall pitifully below the actual costs of living. Orozco and Lemus, for example, together receive only $150 per week. Their children, Bianca, 6, and Fabian, 5, were born in Mexico and, therefore, do not qualify for food stamps. There’s rent to pay, clothing to buy, utility bills.

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So they spent Tuesday morning in line with dozens of others at the privately funded Lindsay-Strathmore Coordinating Council, waiting for a box of food--frozen hamburger or chicken, a loaf of bread, some canned vegetables, pasta, beans.

“If we can make it with our unemployment, we’ll wait until work starts,” Orozco said. “If we can’t, we’ll have to decide whether to go back to Mexico.”

Duke Austin, a Washington-based spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, called the freeze an “unfortunate situation,” but he likened it to any other form of layoff--difficult, but no cause for a change in the law.

“You have a freeze, but, say a textile business or construction company goes out of business,” he said. “Are you going to bend the law” for that? His suggestion: If agriculture work disappears, find another job.

“The U.S. taxpayer would not be expected to support people who had been legalized after they had illegally entered the U.S.,” Austin said. “The only time their status would be affected would be if they became a public charge. One would hope that would not be necessary.”

Even white-collar workers are being laid off in the Central Valley, and jobs are scarce for everyone. Private social service agencies are already overwhelmed by the need and are running out of money to help those unemployed by the freeze that wracked California for two icy weeks.

The need is greatest in Tulare County citrus belt towns such as Lindsay and Exeter.

Tulare County suffered an estimated $300 million in crop losses alone, making it the hardest hit area in California. Even before the freeze, the county was in precarious financial straits.

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With a $347-million budget, the county has only $750,000 in contingency funds. The Board of Supervisors expects freeze-related welfare payments for those who do qualify to chew up between $500,000 and $600,000 of that fund.

Private social service organizations in Tulare County are already swamped:

* FoodLink, the Tulare County food bank, needs 1.5 million pounds of food just to get through February. The price tag is about $1.1 million. FoodLink doesn’t have it.

* In the week of Jan. 2, the Dinuba office of Proteus Training & Employment Inc. received 40 requests for help with rent payments and filled only five.

* CSET in Visalia received 200 requests for shelter assistance between Jan. 2 and Jan. 11, six times the number of people the agency was able to help in the entire month of December, none of which the organization could fill.

* The Lindsay-Strathmore Coordinating Council, which runs the food pantry that helped Orozco and Lemus, usually gives out 50 to 100 boxes of food per month. Since the freeze, it has been handing out that same number in a single day.

Legislators are calling the freeze the third-worst natural disaster to befall California in its history, behind the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the 1989 Loma Prieta quake. Damages are already soaring toward the $1-billion mark.

The bleak picture in the Central Valley has caused government and social service officials to liken the freeze to the 1989 quake in its devastation, with one exception: While the world witnessed the quake’s havoc, few even in California are aware of the depth of suffering in the rural valley. So far, little help has been forthcoming. Fund-raising efforts are under way.

“You don’t have the crumbled buildings,” said Ernie Hernandez, executive director of United Way of Tulare County. “You don’t have the fires. If there are fires, they’re back yard fires to keep people warm.”

The devastation, he said, is in people’s lives. And it will last a very long time.

“They ask, ‘How am I going to feed my family tomorrow?’ And that’s hard to see,” he said.

It’s not hard to see in Lindsay, where freeze-damaged oranges lay thick on orchard floors, where the normally bustling LoBue Bros. Inc. packing plant is down to a skeleton staff, where the line at the food pantry on Honolulu Street stretches out the door onto the sidewalk.

“We used to work all year round,” said Avila, 31, a permanent resident and homeowner in Lindsay. “We have been looking for jobs, but haven’t found anything yet.”

Avila made her first trip to the food line on Tuesday, accompanied by her husband, Salvador, her sister and a nephew. She was laid off on the day after Christmas from her packing job at LoBue Bros., when the freeze forced the company to lay off 403 workers. Salvador, a forklift driver at another packing house, lost his job the same day.

“We’ve been making it on what little savings we have,” Avila said. “But our bills come to $1,500 a month, and our unemployment will be less than $1,000. I get very desperate. I am used to working all the time.”

If receiving assistance affects their immigration status, she said, they will not accept it. And if they cannot get help?

“We would have to sell our cars until we start to work again,” Avila said. “The house payment has to be done.”

Said Olga Lemus, a Lindsay orange picker: “We need to pay our rent and bills. It won’t wait. We don’t ask help for ourselves. Only for our children. If we receive money, it will affect our status. I think it is unjust.”

FREEZE CHRONOLOGY

When the “Arctic Express” pulled out of California, it left devastation in its wake. Damage estimates are nearing the $1-billion mark. A brief chronology:

* Dec. 20: The freeze began on Thursday, as temperatures in Northern California dipped into the 20s. No widespread damage was recorded, although a small pocket of citrus growers in the northern Sacramento Valley suffered a $2-million hit.

* Dec. 23: In Bakersfield, the low reached 18 degrees, with temperatures below 25 degrees for 12 hours. The central portion of the state was devastated. “It’s the most extensive damage I’ve seen, ever,” said Clark Biggs, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

* Dec. 24: The Tulare County agriculture commissioner estimated a $200-million loss agriculture in his area; the damage estimate has since risen to $300 million. LoBue Bros., a Lindsay packing house, laid of about 200 citrus pickers.

* Jan. 2: Official from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including Deputy Secretary Jack Parnell, tour hard-hit areas of the state as a prelude to asking for federal aid.

* Jan. 11: Gov. Pete Wilson declares a state of emergency in 17 California counties--mostly in the Central Valley--because of extensive damage from the two-week freeze.

* Jan. 18: Wilson adds 13 more counties to the list of disaster areas and formally asks President Bush to declare the areas a federal disaster area so that more assistance can be funneled to growers.


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