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Undocumented farmworkers are risking everything to keep America fed

‘People are now scared to work because of fear of getting stopped.’

By Josh Israel - April 14, 2020
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Immigrants, farmworkers
A farmworker from Mexicali, Mexico, picks cabbage before dawn in a field outside of Calexico, California, on March 6, 2018.

As the COVID-19 pandemic upends the lives of most Americans, one group is especially vulnerable: undocumented farmworkers.

Consistently in danger of catching coronavirus, undocumented workers also face losing their livelihoods if they do become sick. Farmworkers often work in close proximity in fields, making social distancing unrealistic. And many worry that if they do need medical care, seeking it could mean deportation.

Advocates say that the community is currently contending with several different challenges, each uniquely threatening to the very people keeping the rest of the country fed while the pandemic rages on.

Fear of infection

Farmworkers picking produce are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Irene de Barraicua, public relations manager for Lideres Campesinas, a group that works with women farmworkers in California, said in a phone interview that many of the people she works with do not realize how at-risk they are.

“They work very closely together, cutting the crops and the lettuce,” she explained. There is “almost no way to do social distancing.”

One strawberry picker in Ventura County, California, said he and his co-workers were warned about handwashing, but have not been given gloves to wear.

“The distance principle, six feet between people, does not work in agriculture,” he told the Guardian last month.

If undocumented farmworkers do get sick, paid leave is far from a certainty.

“In our experience, workers are ridiculed for even trying to use sick pay,” United Farm Workers of America secretary-treasurer Armando Elenes told the outlet. “They’re asked if they have a doctor’s note, but they don’t even have healthcare. Or sometimes [their employers] flat out deny them.”

Deportation concerns

Governors in 42 states have issued “stay-at-home” orders to enforce social distancing rules. Farmworkers are typically exempted from these restrictions and free to work as “essential workers.”

Many employers have distributed letters to their workers to present if they are stopped on their way to and from their jobs, identifying them as essential.

De Barraicua says that has left many undocumented workers fearful regardless.

“We don’t think they have any ill intentions to scare farm workers,” she explained, but undocumented people worry this could be an excuse to round them up.

“People are now scared to work because of fear of getting stopped,” she added. “Their supervisors are saying, ‘You’d better carry this letter because you’re gonna get stopped by the police.'”

Reyna Lopez, executive director of Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noreste, which advocates for Oregon farmworkers and Latinx families, noted the contradictory message being sent to immigrant workers amid the crisis.

“Because many undocumented workers are in farmwork, manufacturing, kitchens, and care, there are a lot of folks deemed essential. It’s a mixed message,” she said in an email. “On the one hand [they are] deemed essential. On the other hand, [Donald] Trump hasn’t said he’ll halt deportations.”

Worries about seeking help

Many undocumented farmworkers also worry that if they do require hospitalization for COVID-19, they could be rounded up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement once they arrive.

Immigrations officials have said they are not attempting to detain people who seek medical care, according to a Miami Herald report last month. “Coronavirus is not considered an exigent circumstance, and individuals seeking medical treatment for the virus should continue to do so without fear or hesitation,” ICE officials said at the time. “Claims to the contrary are false and create unnecessary fear within communities.”

But a few horror stories have some questioning whether to trust those claims. A man in Scranton, Pennsylvania, for instance, was detained by ICE officers last month as he visited a hospital for emergency care, and was arrested as soon as he was medically cleared to leave.

Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, said in an email that ICE raids at medical facilities are “certainly a concern,” but said he had not yet heard that it was happening at a widespread level.

However, “the fear of it is a problem,” he added.

“It was clarified that there would not be raids,” de Barraicua said separately, “but that doesn’t take away the preexisting fears. No matter what we hear the governor say or [the Department of Homeland Security, ICE’s parent agency], those fears exist and are very real.”

Infection in detainment

Even if undocumented farmworkers manage to avoid becoming infected on the job, if they end up in a detention facility, they risk catching it there.

Last week, the Arizona Republic reported that 48 immigration detainees have now tested positive for the virus. Another 15 ICE detention facility workers and 65 more ICE employees have as well.

One detainee told USA Today last week that crowded facilities supervised by guards without masks or gloves make social distancing impossible.

“It’s like the world hasn’t changed and everything has stayed the same [inside],” she said. “We are terrified of dying. If people who have the ability to go to the doctor are dying, what’s going to happen to us in here?”

Stuck in an economic downturn

Jeannie Economos, a project coordinator for the Farmworker Association of Florida, said many workers in her state are worried about being able to feed their own families. Their biggest concerns, she noted, include “rent and utility payments, as the end of the harvesting season is around the corner for Florida farms.”

This means the very people keeping everyone fed “may soon have no work and be unable to travel” due to the pandemic, she said. Excluded from coronavirus economic relief, many may soon be struggling to make ends meet.

Goldstein also noted that some are afraid to access the few benefits to which they are entitled due to the Trump administration’s new “public charge” rule. The legally questionable policy aims to deny green cards to immigrants who need government benefits.

Confusion about that rule “causes people to be fearful of accepting any public benefit even if they are both eligible and it wouldn’t affect the application for immigration status for themselves or their family members,” he said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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