‘Essential’ Migrant Farmworkers Risk Infection and Deportation

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‘Essential’ Migrant Farmworkers Risk Infection and Deportation

In California, food and farm workers are more likely to die from Covid-19 than in any other industry. But while other industries shut down, the business of agriculture kept going, relying on a mostly undocumented workforce that the federal government called essential. “California’s vaccination effort against Covid-19 got underway.” “Advocates for farmworkers say they should be next in line for vaccines, as a matter of national food security.” Back in January, Riverside County began the first large-scale effort to vaccinate farm workers. But the challenges they faced in doing so revealed just how marginalized this community has become. “Vaccinating illegal migrants over the American people.” “Put Americans first. Put Americans first.” Now, the plight of these workers is fueling a push in Congress for major immigration reforms. At stake, a pathway to citizenship for about a million undocumented workers across the country. “Farmworkers have been on the front lines. They deserve the opportunity to take steps towards legal status.” “Promising amnesty to those who are already here illegally encourages more aliens to come illegally.” This is usually an inspection site at a grape and date farm. When Riverside County allocated their very first batch of vaccines for farm workers, they brought them here. “Today we are vaccinating farmworkers. We’re delivering 250 vaccines. But it’s a very large community, about 20,000 to 30,000 farmworkers. And to get herd immunity, we need to vaccinate at least 70 percent of our population.” Riverside County is known for Palm Springs and premier golf courses, but it’s also home to the farming region of the Eastern Coachella Valley, where in December, Covid positivity rates reached nearly 40 percent. “We know that they’re in close contact with other people. And so we know that the opportunity for transmission is really high. But it was really startling. My job is to make sure that our community is healthy. If somebody gets Covid-19, doesn’t matter if they’re undocumented or not, they can spread it to the community just like any other person.” But while prioritizing farmworkers on paper is one thing, actually getting shots in arms is another. “Their access to resources aren’t there. Right, there’s not a lot of public transportation or physicians or clinics in the area.” And so to reach these workers, the county had to go through their employers. “Hey, Brett, really, really good news for you. Friday, vaccinations for your employees.” “No way!” Janell Percy is the executive director of the Coachella Valley Growers Association. Lately, she’s been a de facto public health administrator for the county, coordinating vaccine clinics through her network of local farm owners. “This process has been very challenging. There’s been so many unknowns. You know, I’m used to working more with plants than I am with people, I guess. So I have you down for 25, right?” “Ah, yes.” “You know, everybody’s anxious. I’ve been telling everybody just to be patient. Could be weeks. It could be months. At this point, I don’t know.” But not everyone is on Janell’s list. Smaller farms like this one might not pay into the association. Many laborers follow seasonal crops from one farm to another, and some use borrowed Social Security numbers with employers. These workers may not even know about the county’s mobile vaccination efforts. So the county has also been relying on community organizations to reach people more directly. Luz Gallegos runs one of those groups. She grew up here, herself the child of undocumented farmworkers. “We have been telling the community that your health should always be first, and prevention is key. And if you’re not alive, you’re never going to see a green card. But we cannot judge our community for not trusting government.” “Farmworkers have always been essential, but they’ve never been treated as such.” There are an estimated 800,000 farmworkers in California alone. Nationwide, the number is somewhere between two and three million. “As we’re starting to get towards peak season, we have to exponentially accelerate to innoculate farmworkers or we are going to see many more dying from Covid-19.” Alberto and Marina have lived with a fear of ICE and arrest since they came here. It’s an experience that Marina knows firsthand. Three years ago while crossing the border, she was caught. “Essential workers should not have to worry about whether or not they’re going to see their children at the end of the day, whether or not they’re going to be deported.” Raul Ruiz grew up in these fields. He became a doctor, and then ran for Congress and won. Now he’s in his home district, educating farm workers about the vaccine. For Dr. Ruiz, getting the vaccine to farmworkers isn’t enough. In March, he helped push the Farm Workforce Modernization Act in the House. The bill would provide protections and a path to legalization for undocumented agricultural workers. “They are literally dying to feed you. We must protect and secure our food supply chain. If there’s any moment to provide the empathy and the understanding to protect them from being separated from their families, it is now.” “It is going to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis we see at the border.” “The path to citizenship as a reward for breaking our laws.” The bill passed with bipartisan support, but it will face an uphill battle in the Senate. Meanwhile, other states are joining California and beginning to vaccinate farmworkers, recognizing that the only way out of the pandemic is for everyone to have their turn.

Source: New York Times

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