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Valley representatives vow to fight elimination of workers' aid programs

February 16, 2002|By JENNIFER SARANOW, Special to this newspaper

WASHINGTON (MNS) — Imperial Valley representatives of migrant and seasonal farm worker training groups said Tuesday they would fight President Bush's proposed elimination of the $81 million migrant and seasonal worker program that helps low-income workers find jobs outside agriculture.

"It's really going to hurt," said Johnny Rodriguez, a recruiter and job developer in the Imperial County office of the Center for Employment Training, a nonprofit agency dedicated to providing American or resident migrant workers with vocational and English-language training. "Most of our people here are in need of some kind of training, so this is something terrible that's really going to affect our economy here in Imperial Valley."

Hermelinda Sapien, president of the San Jose-based nonprofit that has 18 centers in California, said the center had received $6.9 million a year through the migrant and seasonal worker program, money that would be eliminated if the president's budget is approved. She said the news of the proposed cut came as "a big shock."

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The president's Department of Labor budget plan cut the program as part of a move to consolidate job-training programs and maintain "effective" programs. It specifically cut nine of the department's 17 training programs, leaving intact programs that help laid off or dislocated workers return to work and that provide general youth and adult training.

The budget for the employment and training services sector would decrease to $5 billion from $5.6 billion, and the Department of Labor budget as a whole would decrease $2.9 billion to $56.5 billion from $59.4 billion.

Sapien said she and representatives of 25 other organizations nationwide that provide services to farm workers will be using an already scheduled meeting Feb. 16-21 in San Diego to put together a strategy for an appeal to the administration to restore the funds.

"The programs were not thoroughly evaluated before this decision was made," she said. "The elimination of this money means there would not be any groups advocating for farm workers, reaching out to them with employment services and working to improve their lives. It's a very valuable service we're providing."

Labor's budget report stated there would be an estimated 43,000 participants in the migrant and farm workers program in 2002.

Mike Harrison, spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-52nd District, who represents Imperial County, said a low number is part of the reason the administration is cutting the program.

"According to the administration, the program has been underutilized by those it intended to help, with roughly three-fourths of the program's participants eligible never enrolling in training," he said. "That would be identified as wasteful. We're pleased that the administration is identifying programs that don't have high success rates and reallocating the money to programs that are more beneficial."

He cited, for example, programs that help migrant children get through high school and college and more general programs that help migrants and nonmigrants alike.

Rep. Bob Filner, a Democrat whose district will include Imperial Valley after the next election because of redrawn congressional maps, said he was not surprised that Bush wants to eliminate the program.

"It's a very clear reflection of his priorities," Filner said. "In order to provide tax cuts for the wealthy, he cuts programs for health, education, veterans. We're to fight this in Congress and try to restore funds."

Proposed increases for defense and homeland security spending, a spokeswoman for the Department of Labor said, meant that the department had to cut some programs, but organizations serving migrant workers would still be able to obtain federal money under more general adult training programs such as the adult formula program.

Rodriguez estimated there are 100,000 migrant and seasonal workers in Imperial County — including those who come to work in the county from Mexicali and elsewhere — many with no more than a third-grade education. So it's imperative that organizations like his continue to receive funding.

"All they know is the field," he said. "What we're trying to do is give them a better way of life through training and get them off the seasonal thing, off unemployment and off welfare. There are so many roadblocks for them ahead for them. We're working miracles with the money we're given."

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