Nov 3, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Undocumented farmworkers face disaster discrimination

Illustration of a person looking over the edge of a large cliff chasm shaped like a medical cross

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Undocumented farmworkers in the U.S. face critical barriers to emergency health care during and after disasters, multiple organizations tell Axios.

The big picture: As climate change makes wildfires more frequent and heatwaves hotter and rapidly strengthens hurricanes across the U.S., lack of health care access is a worsening crisis for the backbone of America’s agricultural workforce.

Threat level: While farmworkers often live in flood plains, their labor camps don't always appear on maps, says Melissa Castillo, a North Carolina farmworker advocate with the nonprofit NC FIELD.

  • So if a worker were to call 911 for help during a disaster, it is not guaranteed that emergency services will be able to find them to provide assistance.
  • These areas are prone to have limited internet access and cellphone service, which can also thwart their ability to seek medical care or look up weather alerts, Castillo adds.
  • Many farmworkers in rural parts of North Carolina, for example, did not immediately see mandatory evacuation orders during 2018's Hurricane Florence, Castillo tells Axios. That left "scores" stranded in waist-high water levels, she says.

Language barriers, distance to a clinic, lack of transportation and cost of health insurance force undocumented workers to delay care, according to Juana Lozano, a former farmworker who does community health outreach for the Farmworkers Association of Florida.

  • Because farmworkers either get paid by the hour or by the quantity of produce they harvest, many will work past capacity and through illness, Lozano tells Axios in Spanish.
  • Plus, community clinics mostly only operate during working hours, which further limits health care options for farmworkers — a workforce where up to 75% are Latino and roughly 65% are uninsured.
  • Lozano says farmworkers have told her: "If I don't find somewhere to go, well, that's just how I'm going to die."

When a disaster strikes, the costliness of recovery further amplifies these barriers, says Jeannie Economos, coordinator of the pesticide safety and environmental health program at the Farmworkers Association of Florida.

  • "If you're a farmworker, and you get hit by a natural disaster that affects the crops, not only do you have the problem of maybe losing your home or having damage to your home, but you don't have work," Economos told Axios.
  • "If you're not working because of the crops, what do you do? Go buy health care, or go buy food?"

State of play: Outdoor workers, including farmworkers, in the U.S. are highly exposed to climate-fueled health risks, like extreme heat-related illnesses, according to a report published in The Lancet last week.

  • The inequitable impact on outdoor workers is "two-fold" because they face more exposure while having a lack of health care, said Lewis Ziska, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University who contributed to the report.
  • Health burdens can also emerge from wildfire smoke exposure and contaminated floodwaters, such as chronic lung disease or hypothermia.

Between the lines: Even if hospitals or clinics are nearby, farmworkers without authorization tend to avoid them during and after disasters because of deportation fears, according to Amy Liebman, director of environmental and occupational health at the nonprofit Migrant Clinicians Network.

What to watch: As millions of people every year continue to flee environments impacted by climate change, undocumented migration into the U.S. is expected to rise and become more perilous, according to a 2021 report published in the journal Science.

  • There is currently no federal legislation that allows people displaced by climate change to seek legal refugee status in the U.S.

The bottom line: "We need to figure this out because human lives are in danger," NC FIELD's Castillo said. "The fact that these men are living without access to emergency services in really isolated areas should be extremely concerning to everyone."

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