Housing, Migrant & Seasonal Workers, Working Conditions

Migrants Get Harsh Welcome in Urbana

From News-Gazette.com, Mary Schenk, 17 Jul 2011.

URBANA [IL] — Yolanda Iracheta was dragging as she got off the bus bringing her back to her apartment in southeast Urbana about 6 p.m. Saturday. It had been a long, hot day of detasseling corn.

“My eyebrows and everything hurts,” the 37-year-old migrant worker from Sullivan, Texas, said with a laugh.

She, her husband of 18 years, and two of their four children work for Pioneer Seed detasseling corn. They typically put in 12-hour days, six days a week.

Speaking Spanish to Urbana police Sgt. Adam Chacon, who translated for The News-Gazette, Iracheta said they and several other families from Texas arrived July 2 at the Gabe’s Place Apartments at 1507 E. Washington St., U.

Since July 3, migrant workers have been listed as victims of two armed robberies, a home invasion, an attempted armed robbery, and multiple shots fired in that immediate area. Iracheta’s 10-year-old son saw a shooting last week in the parking lot of the apartment complex.

But since police have increased their presence in the last few days, Iracheta said she and the others feel safer. She was most grateful to Chacon, an approachable and amiable police officer who exudes concern.

Still, her family will be looking for an apartment in a safer area at the end of this month, she said, since they expect to have work locally through the end of October. Pioneer found the Gabe’s Place apartments and paid the workers’ first month’s rent, she said. They’ll have to pay their own rent for the remainder of their stay.

Chacon said as itinerant workers, the Texas residents don’t have bank accounts, so they cash their checks at nearby businesses.

“People realize they’re holding hard cash. They are a very attractive mark,” he said.

That victimization has infuriated Police Chief Pat Connolly, who has taken steps to help the migrant workers while focusing police efforts on trying to find the “thugs” he said are responsible for their rude welcome.

“This is a poor, hard-working community. These are not illegal immigrants. They have passports. They’re from Texas, not Mexico,” he said.

Prompted by some of the beat officers in that troubled neighborhood, Connolly called an impromptu meeting Thursday night in the center court of the three-building complex to assure the workers that Urbana police are there to protect them and help them if they can.

“We are not in a major city surrounded by violent crime every day. It’s heartbreaking to see visitors so scared that they don’t want to leave their apartment complex,” Connolly said.

Connolly was accompanied by Alejandra Coronel, a professional translator of Spanish based in Champaign and an advocate for Latinos. Connolly praised Coronel for her assistance in translating for the more than 70 folks who turned out on short notice.

“I fully expected these people to be hesitant about my presence. These people were incredibly kind and appreciative of the fact we were there and showing concern,” he said.

Iracheta was among them.

Chacon and Connolly said the residents had a number of concerns.

Some of the women said they were being harassed as they went to the nearby laundromat housed in the same building as the Quick Shop 66 at 1511 E. Washington St. That business is next to the Home Run Food Mart at 1507 E. Washington St., a frequent gathering place for people who live in that area.

Iracheta said since the meeting, the migrant workers have stopped going to those businesses.

She’s done agricultural work in both Illinois and Minnesota and prefers our neighbors to the north.

“There is more racism here,” she said.

“She’s had people yelling unpleasant things at her,” Chacon said.

Connolly said a few tenants said they had problems reaching 911, which may have had something to do with their cellphone numbers having Texas area codes, he said. He personally contacted METCAD on the phones of a few of the folks to make sure their calls were answered promptly.

He and Coronel also distributed a leaflet in Spanish that Coronel wrote with safety tips and instructions on calling for help.

Connolly said he has also been in touch with PNC Bank, in hopes of getting it to cash checks for the workers without requiring them to open accounts. He’s also asked officials at the Mass Transit District if they might be willing to provide secure rides to the bank for them.

Chacon pointed out that the workers have their own vehicles; they just don’t know the lay of the land. And he said there just are not a lot of organized resources for them.

Iracheta said they have television, video games, and Internet access, all of which offer entertainment when they aren’t shopping or otherwise taking care of their daily needs.

They like to visit Crystal Lake Park on their off day, she said.

Asked if her life is hard, Iracheta said no.

“The work is very hard. It’s a season, is all it is,” she said. All the workers will return to Texas at the end of their four-month stint here, she said.

Her husband works construction when he’s not doing agricultural labor. Their family of six lives on about $24,000 a year, the collective income from her, her husband, and their two older daughters, ages 16 and 13.

Chacon, who grew up in southern Arizona and has relatives who live in Mexico, called the migrant workers a “very hardy people.”

“They’re not the kind of people who shrink from hardships and danger, but that doesn’t mean they want to be afraid all the time,” he said.

Source: News-Gazette.com, “Migrants get harsh welcome in Urbana” by Mary Schenk, 17 Jul 2011.

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