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Migrant worker camps mostly owned by farmers
Michigan Correspondent

LANSING, Mich. — A recent study indicated that there were more than 90,000 migrant workers in Michigan.

The Michigan Department of Human Services (DHS) has released its first comprehensive estimate of the state’s migrant and seasonal farm workers (MSFWs) and their families in more than 15 years.

Alice Larson, PhD. of Larson Assistance Services was contracted by the DHS to conduct the study. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided $30,000 in funding. Larson is the author of a series of reports published in 2000 on migrant populations in other states, and the Michigan study is part of that series.

According to Larson a migrant is simply a seasonal worker who has to live somewhere else other than home for at least one night. Migrants have to have their permanent homes at least 50 miles from their work, and they often live in other states, such as Texas.

Many of these workers live in migrant camps in the state. There are 900 such licensed camps in Michigan, and most are farmer owned and operated.

These camps can house up to 20,000 individuals, in all. It’s unclear where the rest of the migrant workers live during the season.

The study provided the following totals for Michigan:

•Total MSFW and non-farm workers in their households - 90,716

•Migrant farm workers only - 35,148

•Seasonal farm workers only - 10,652

•Non-farm workers in migrant worker households - 33,671

•Non-farm workers in seasonal worker households - 11,245

The actual totals are higher, however, because workers in some agricultural businesses were left out of the study. For example, poultry and aquaculture workers were not included.

The study is considered to be important because the numbers will be used to apply for federal dollars that would help meet housing and other needs of these agricultural workers.

“We had to do this comprehensive study,” said Martha Gonzalez-Cortes, DHS director of the Office of Migrant Affairs. “All of us stand to benefit from better data.”

She said most migrant and seasonal worker benefits are funded by the federal government, and that these benefits might have been cut off if the state had not produced more comprehensive and current data.

“This is a very conservative report,” Gonzalez-Cortes said.

She explained local experts often stated the numbers seemed rather low compared to their own experience. Larson said, compared to other states she has studied, Michigan has a large number of “accompanied” individuals, which implies children, non-farm worker spouses and parents.

According to Gonzalez-Cortes, the MSFW and family member numbers are “fairly consistent” with studies done in 1985 and 1990. She is surprised, however, by the large number of families accompanying migrant workers. She expected to see an increase in single men working in this field, since that’s been the pattern in other states.

The study also provides a breakdown of MSFWs and their families by county.

The five counties with the highest numbers are as follows:

•Ottawa 11,942

•Oceana 9,657

•Van Buren 7,720

•Berrien 6,654

•Kent 6,496

A number of other counties had more than 1,000 MSFWs and family members, most of them in western Michigan. Perhaps surprisingly, Macomb County, a suburb north of Detroit, had 2,611 of these individuals.

Gonzalez-Cortes noted Macomb County has a large number of nursery operations that employ seasonal and migrant workers.

The study, which was conducted with limited funding, has certain limitations: namely, it relies on existing data sources rather than primary information, such as surveys or actual counts.

These sources include the National Agricultural Workers Survey, conducted three times a year by the U.S. Department of Labor; the Census of Agriculture, a direct survey of agricultural workers conducted once every five years by the USDA; and the ES202, a database that’s derived from information submitted by employers for the national unemployment insurance system.

Larson compared her figures with those from smaller studies already published to make sure they were “reasonable,” and sought feedback from local individuals with extensive knowledge of the subject.

According to Gonzalez-Cortes, this study is especially useful because of the county statistics, since most funds are distributed according to needs at the county level. Gonzalez-Cortes and her colleagues will now be able to cite county numbers when requesting funds for a certain area.

To view the entire 36-page study, including all county statistics, go online at