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Central Valley Farmworkers Are 'Starving Right Now'

New America Media, Interview Audio, Sandip Roy Posted: Dec 05, 2009

Editors Note: Don Villarejo started as a volunteer in the farmworkers' movement in 1976 and founded the California Institute for Rural Studies. He is the author of Suffering in Silence, and a winner of the National Service Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Migrant Health. Villarejo spoke about the impact of drought and the economic recession on Central Valley farmworkers with Sandip Roy, NAM editor and host of New America Now radio.

For those of us who haven't been to the fields of California's Central Valley, what would we see if we went there?

We have had a drought. We've also had environmental policy decisions in the courts that have reduced irrigation supplies beyond what the drought has done. There are hundreds of thousands of acres that are now fallow. An acre is about the size of a football field. So if you could imagine 200,000 football fields where nothing is growing, whereas in the past we had been producing vegetables and other kinds of agricultural commodities. It's a barren area in many parts, particularly in the West San Joaquin Valley.

What is happening to the people who were working in the fields?

There is no work. They have already been pushed as far back as one could imagine in terms of trying to survive. There are now food giveaways every two weeks on a Tuesday in Mendota. A thousand or more people line up every two weeks to get a little package of food to try and get through. Many of the workers are not eligible for unemployment insurance because they have no documents. The kinds of things that most Americans think they can rely on in times of unemployment and difficulty are not available. There is no welfare and no support system at all. People are actually pretty desperate right now. There are people starving right now in the Central Valley.

How is people's health affected by the fact that they might be undocumented?

If an undocumented person is experiencing difficulty working in a temperature of 110 degrees in the sun in the Central Valley, they are very reluctant to complain. They are very reluctant to call a government agency and ask for enforcement if, for example, there is no drinking water or shade provided. That has to do with their immigration status. So they will take risks that are otherwise not something that you would even consider to be a problem.

In addition, most people who are undocumented do not have access to health care. There is no way that Medi-Cal will provide for people who otherwise would qualify based on income ... unless you are pregnant. In that event, you do get emergency Medi-Cal. But even then, you have to apply for it and deal with government agencies. So there are ways that it does affect health. Fortunately, most of the workers are young and in good health when they come here. They can get through seasons like that.

What do people do when they fall sick?

In some cases they use home remedies. Sometimes they will simply do without. In the investigative work we did when we looked at a cross section of about a thousand workers statewide, we found a gentleman who had had a broken shoulder working with livestock out in the Central Valley of California. He had not had it treated. Why? His employer told him not only would he lose his job, but his brother and both of his cousins would lose their jobs. In addition, they would lose their housing, which had been supplied by the employer. That undocumented status really threatened the whole family's livelihood and housing in very serious ways. So he went without treatment of a broken shoulder. That is unacceptable.

In 2000, you did a survey on health insurance for farm laborers. What did you find?

About 16 percent--one out of six employers--offered health insurance. However, there were co-payments for the premium that the worker had to contribute. As a result of that, only about 60 percent of the workers who had an opportunity to get health insurance through their employer took advantage of that. The others felt they didn't have the resources or the money to be able to contribute that portion of the premium. So all together, perhaps 11 percent--one out of nine workers--had health insurance through their employer. Most workers had no health insurance of any kind.

The health care proposals in Congress exclude people here without papers. Whatever passes, what effects would they have on Californias farmworkers?

If there are U.S.-born children in these households, or if there are some family members who are legal permanent residents, those people will be able to get health insurance through the programs that are being discussed. So that is one plus. It is a small plus. We would like to see everybody covered. A lot of the people who do not have insurance are undocumented and working here without any provision. My hope is that next year, in 2010, immigration reform will come to the fore. I look forward to President Obama's State of the Union Address in January. I think he may raise the possibility that we are going to seriously address immigration reform. If we do, and we do it right, then the present immigration status could change for so many people who would be excluded from the health care programs. It could change in a way that they too would have access to health insurance.

To hear the full version of the interview with Don Villarejo, click here. Transcribed by Andrew Berry

Related Articles:

Hispanic Caucus Troubled by Health Provision on Undocumented Immigrants

Health Disparities Hit Poor, Minority Women

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