Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) was disturbed by the condemned water, the ramshackle housing, the lack of cooking and sanitary facilities he'd been seeing all day, but it took the case of the Catholic nun to tell the whole story.
As Gonzalez toured the controversial Westover migrant farm worker camp in Somerset County as part of a day-long investigative tour of farm labor housing on the Delmarva Peninsula, Sister Jane Houtman was outside looking in -- labeled an "agitator" by the camp's owners and blocked from entering.
The Texas congressman came to the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia Saturday on the first leg of what he intends to be a full-scale national study aimed at pushing farmers and the federal government toward quick improvement in housing for migrant farm laborers.
The incident involving Sister Jane, a nurse to migrants on the shore for seven years who has been critical of the growers, capsulized what Gonzalez heard all day long from workers and others -- that housing problems are only one facet of a constant grappling between labor and management, a constant clashing of wills over what is right for the migrants.
Sister Jane and other nurses from the Daughters of the Holy Spirit have wrangled with farmers for months over conditions in the camp. Finally, the 12 owners of Westover decided that she and the other nurses will not be allowed on the camp next season because of their "agitation" among migrants.
For all that, there was at least one new development. Gonzalez and staffers from the House Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee heard farmers on the Delmarva Peninsula, where more than 6,000 migrants worked in vegetable fields this summer, admit for the first time that the housing they provide is inadequate.
The Somerset farmers and Philip McCaleb, a Belle Haven, Va., grower and chairman of the Virginia Migrant and Seasonal Farm Worker Commission, conceded they have problems, but urged Gonzalez and his housing and community development subcommittee to ease their quandary over federal regulations.
"Housing is a major problem," said McCaleb, "and it contributes as much as anything to other problems, such as health . . . Farmers don't pay enough attention to housing. They don't see housing as a productive investment."
He and Somerset farmers Edwin Long and Dennett Butler complained -- and Gonzalez readily agreed -- that requirements of the Farmers Home Administration are so complex and unrealistic that few farmers are willing to take advantage of the long-term loans available at 1 per cent interest for migrant housing.
But they hardly needed to concede there was a problem, after what Gonzalez had found in his day of visiting labor camps and taking testimony at a hearing in Melfa, Va. At one point, after visiting Haitian refugees in a desolate Maryland camp, the congressman shook his head and lamented "the unbelieveable travesty."
That was at the Wanex and Groton camp near Hurlock, in Dorchester County. A typewritten notice, taped to a wall by the county health department, warned in three languages that under no condition should babies drink the nitrate-poisoned water. All water used for drinking must be boiled. Clean bottled water is available to workers willing to pay, the notice said.
At the John N. Wright Jr. Canning Co. labor camp at Federalsburg, Md., a crew of Mexican-American cucumber harvesters told Gonzalez that the early fall coolness has made living difficult in their unheated corrugated metal barracks. The congressman was visibly touched after a woman from Texas recognized him and pleaded for help.
"God is watching you," she told him in Spanish as her six young children milled about. She complained about heat in the summer, cold in the fall and no sunlight in the one-story metal buildings. "You need to do something," she said. "People want to work, but they need help -- these conditions are not good."
At the nearby Washington Cemetery Road camp, Haitians played a spirited game of dominoes in the yard as fellow workers crowded around. Women were cooking beans and hot chocolate in an open-air communal kitchen, featuring a stopped-up sink and squadrons of buzzing flies.
At Westover, Gonzalez and aides negotiated with camp manager Bill Webster for more than 30 minutes before being allowed to see some of the two dozen buildings, once part of a holding pen for German prisoners during World War II.
At the Farmex camp at Tasley, Va., he found more of the same -- workers and children huddling in unheated, unlighted rooms; pools of water dotting the common yard; filthy latrines and rustic cooking facilities.
At Melfa, Gonzalez took testimony from farmers, from workers representing Mexican-American, Haitian and American black migrants, a Catholic priest, and nurses from the Delmarva Rural Ministries, who provide health care for migrant and seasonal workers on the peninsula.
Sister Jane and Linda K. Miller, nursing coordinator for the ministries, stressed that it is impossible to separate housing from overall migrant problems of health and safety. "As much as 30 percent of our nursing encounters document illness and trauma that are directly related to camp conditions," Miller said.
The nun, however, laid it on the line. As overwhelming as the problems seem, Sister Jane said, "people tolerate their situation because they want to work." She said better housing would quickly alleviate some other migrant woes.
But, she added, the problem of caring for the migrant is everyone's and "basic attitudes" won't change until people begin to speak out. For her part, the nun said, "I cannot remain silent." The audience, including grower McCaleb, broke into applause.