The Unseen Victims of California's Wildfires

New America Media, News Report, Amanda Martinez Posted: Oct 26, 2007

Traducción al español

Editor's Note: Undocumented immigrants who have survived for years living along San Diego’s hillsides and canyons now find themselves left out of relief efforts in the Southern California fires, writes NAM contributor Amanda Martinez.

The relief efforts in the Southern California fires have been praised as effective, but they’ve missed a population that has long been in the shadows: undocumented workers living along San Diego’s hillsides and canyons. These men, who represent some of the most essential workers in one of the biggest local industries, have slipped through the cracks in the county’s relief and evacuation efforts – so much so that Mexican government officials are filling in the gaps.

“The Mexican Consulate are the ones who have led the relief effort to the farm workers in the canyons,” says Eddie Preciado, director of La Posada de Guadalupe, the only homeless shelter for male farm workers in San Diego County. He says the consulate has organized partnerships with groups like his in order to conduct searches and provide supplies to the canyon dwellers.

Immigrant advocacy groups are uncertain how these workers are surviving. They say the fires have left the workers scattered and unaccounted for. Evacuation orders have closed off access to these communities, making it very difficult for support teams to assess the population’s needs and nearly impossible to determine how many living quarters have been destroyed in the fires.

The farm workers are hard to reach physically, living in the remote areas of the canyon, but they are also linguistically isolated. Many are members of Mexico’s indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec communities and do not speak English or Spanish.

“Indigenous Mexicans who speak languages such as Mixteco are at high risk of being in danger because they don’t understand warnings being given in English or Spanish and they are not likely to trust people unless they are approached speaking their language,” says photojournalist David Bacon, who has documented farm worker communities in rural California.

It has been estimated that there are more than 1,600 agricultural workers and day laborers living in the area in makeshift settlements, according to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless in San Diego. This is probably a low estimate of those affected by the fires because it is impossible to know exactly how many workers live this way. Described as “rural homeless,” they scrape by without electricity, a water supply, or sanitation systems in order to be close to the farms where they work.

These workers make up an essential agricultural labor force in San Diego County, which is one of the top agricultural producers in California and ranks second in the nation in its number of farms, according to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

Yet despite the industry’s reliance on these laborers, they could be left out of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s relief aid because, without papers, they have very limited access to FEMA funds.

Konane Martinez of the National Latino Research Center anticipates that documentation will be a requirement for most federal government agencies providing relief in the area. As a result, Martinez is collaborating with 18 different organizations to collect money and resources for displaced farm workers looking for aid once the fires subside.

“I don’t think anyone will be turned away from immediate assistance,” says Dorothy Johnson, an attorney with California Legal Rural Assistance, which provides farm workers with legal support. And though no one has reported being denied help, many undocumented immigrants are not seeking aid because they do not know which rescue workers they can trust. Many see the risk of deportation as more dangerous than the fires themselves.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they avoided firefighters,” says Bacon, adding that many undocumented workers are wary of law enforcement for fear of being detained or deported.

“Many of these workers have experienced intense situations of danger just to get into the United States,” and earn money to send to their families back home, explains Bacon. They are willing to endure very harsh conditions, he says, to avoid being caught by Border Patrol or ICE agents.

The Spanish-language publication Enlace, in San Diego, reported on Monday that some farm workers have chosen to remain in the canyons despite warnings to evacuate because they do not want to leave.

Meanwhile some who do are not being allowed to leave. “Some farmers are not following evacuation orders and have kept workers in the fields despite orders being given to evacuate,” says Christian Ramirez of the American Friends Service Committee.

But if they stay they should know that, as Ramirez explains, “the atmosphere conditions are not safe to be working in.” His organization has been sending volunteers into the fields to supply farm workers with eye drops, facemasks and goggles.

Apparently unconcerned that the use of Border Patrol agents might discourage undocumented residents from seeking help, the San Diego County Office of Emergency Management called on the U.S. Border Patrol to help with the emergency relief efforts. Matthew Johnson says about 300 agents are now “watching for looters, monitoring affected neighborhoods and safety control” during the fire relief efforts.

Some agents were working alongside local police when six undocumented immigrants were arrested Wednesday outside of Qualcomm Stadium, one of the main fire relief sites.

Those arrested were reportedly seen stealing relief supplies consisting of fold-up cots and bottles of water from Qualcomm. Police Sgt. Jesse Cesena told the San Diego Union-Tribune that "they were stealing from the people in need." The police turned the immigrants over to Border Patrol agents.

Although they are busy with local relief efforts, Johnson says the Border Patrol is still watching the border. Since the start of the fires, he says, they have apprehended 200 immigrants trying to cross into the United States.

Ironically, Dr. Leo Estrada, professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, believes the undocumented workers shouldn’t worry. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) won’t be conducting raids anytime soon, he says.

In fact, he predicts, immigrant workers will be needed in reconstruction efforts after the fire. More than 410,000 acres of land have burned, and clean-up efforts will be critical. “With more than 1000 homes being demolished,” he notes, “contractors will be looking to immigrant labor forces to demolish, cart away, and rebuild houses.”

“We saw it New Orleans,” says Estrada. Undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America were among the largest groups employed in rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina.

“At the time of reconstruction, nobody bothered them. It will be interesting to see,” says Estrada. “They will be bringing back a labor force they have been trying to get rid of.”

Photographs by David Bacon

To contribute to the Farm Worker Relief Fund, contact Konane Martinez at the Farmworker CARE Coalition.



Related Articles:

Ethnic Media Cover the Fires

Invisible Fire Victims in the Canyons

Fuego in San Diego: Very Little Information in Spanish


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User Comments


gitana on Nov 04, 2007 at 19:43:51 said:

Thank you Amanda for your very insightful article. It's interesting to note the hypocrisy of the US government towards immigrant workers. On the one hand they make it very difficult for immigrant workers to exercise their human rights to live and work peacefully and on the other hand they want their labor because without them the economy of this country would collapse!


gitana on Nov 04, 2007 at 19:40:57 said:

Thank you Amanda for your very insightful article. It's interesting to note the hypocrisy of the US government towards immigrant workers. On the one hand they make it very difficult for immigrant workers to exercise their human rights to live and work peacefully and on the other hand they want their labor because without them the economy of this country would collapse!


JT Ready on Oct 31, 2007 at 23:05:47 said:

"Undocumented Immigrants" are LEGAL Immigrants who have misplaced their documentation. Calling an ILLEGAL ALIEN an 'undocumented worker' is like calling a burglar an univited house guest. And these invaders are hardly in the 'shadows'. Unless you consider down dark alleys dealing drugs as 'in the shadows'. These foreign criminals are bankrupting our schools and hospitals. They arer packing our jails full and spreading diseases. And how could you miss the MILLIONS of them in the streets protesting for American 'rights' they are not deserving of?

Our once beautiful neighborhoods are now third world slums filled with grafitti, trash, and crime. What a wonderful 'cultural' blessing we have inherited thanks to these Illegal Racist Invaders. Thanks, but no thanks. The sooner they are sent back to the trashy lands which they have already destroyed, the better for the whole USA.

Besides, it would just break my heart to deprive them from their families even just one more day. I would be willing to pay send at least one busfull of them back. How about you? Won't you chip in for this 'Family Re-Unification Program'? It's the humane thing to do. For us and for them.

Watch their poor humble suffering here:

Go to youtube website. Then search Aztlan Rising


JT Ready on Oct 31, 2007 at 22:19:45 said:

"Undocumented Immigrants" are LEGAL Immigrants who have misplaced their documentation. Calling an ILLEGAL ALIEN an 'undocumented worker' is like calling a burglar an univited house guest. And these invaders are hardly in the 'shadows'. Unless you consider down dark alleys dealing drugs as 'in the shadows'. These foreign criminals are bankrupting our schools and hospitals. They arer packing our jails full and spreading diseases. And how could you miss the MILLIONS of them in the streets protesting for American 'rights' they are not deserving of?

Our once beautiful neighborhoods are now third world slums filled with grafitti, trash, and crime. What a wonderful 'cultural' blessing we have inherited thanks to these Illegal Racist Invaders. Thanks, but no thanks. The sooner they are sent back to the trashy lands which they have already destroyed, the better for the whole USA.

Besides, it would just break my heart to deprive them from their families even just one more day. I would be willing to pay send at least one busfull of them back. How about you? Won't you chip in for this 'Family Re-Unification Program'? It's the humane thing to do. For us and for them.

Watch their poor humble suffering here:

Go to youtube website. Then search Aztlan Rising


Anne on Oct 31, 2007 at 16:36:24 said:

This is a great article. These invisible people in the shadows of our slave labor economy have full HUMAN RIGHTS and these rights take ALL PRECEDENCE over any laws. These Human Rights need to be asserted by/for these people in whatever way possible by all people willing to stand up and help other human beings.
As for some of the racist people who are immune from other peoples pain I suggest going to the Land Of George Bush's OZ and begging him for a new human heart.


Anonyma on Oct 29, 2007 at 21:44:44 said:

The assistance that needs to be given to the illegal workers is a ticket back to their home country. We're only "dependent on them" (if, indeed, we are) because employers will not hire the many Americans who need work. The only people who benefit from this situation are employers who can make dream profits and illegals who can earn what are to them dream wages. Send the employers to jail and send the illegals to their home nation.


Cindy Vo on Oct 29, 2007 at 21:04:52 said:

Wow, it is ridiculous how this country works. We want to use them for cheap labor but cannot assist them when they need help. And the six undocumented immigrants that were arrested for stealing food and water for survival was putted in jail and turned over to the border patrol. I thought that was so unfair. They only want to use them but cannot help them. This community is always left in the shadow and no one looks at them until they are needed. This is the Katrina event all over again only looking at the people in power. The majority of people I have seen on the news concerning the wildfires were white victims but I am pretty sure there is a huge population of Latinos down there as well that is being left in the dark. That is all I have to say


Tim Baer on Oct 29, 2007 at 13:49:37 said:

Amazing. First off, they come here to work for Scumbag Employers who still charge the same amount for the work regardless of how much they pay the workers. Second If they were gone they would be paying american labor. Yes we all heard the bull that its jobs americans wont do! Third, Dr. Leo Estrada does not say that the City of New Orleans asked them all to come with the promise that they would leave after the work was done. Instead of putting americans to work they pay cheap labor to avoid paying for Unemployment, disability and other things they must pay for when they hire americans. It only taks one scumbag in the company to make that choice not every american. I have been out of work for a week trying to keep up with Real bills, Real taxes, and all the Real things americans must pay to be americans. when the illegals get into a bad situation they can leave and go home but as an american i am Stuck here. I cannot just Migrate as an illegal to mexico or france. How dare our government ignore the immigration laws put into affect by the 1986 amnesty and force us to deal with illegal immigration. As for the Illegals.... Go Home and Get a visa.


JOHN MCMAHON on Oct 28, 2007 at 02:54:26 said:

So let me see if I have this right. It is OK for those 6 guys to steal from the shelter because they are here illegially and needed the stuff. but if they were legal citizens ,it would have been just fine if they had been arrested and put in jail, sound like a double standard...its ok for illegal persons to steal but not legal citizens. Many illegals were in the fires zones but they were afraid to come out for fear of going to jail or being deported. So if I was in the fire zones and was wonted for a crime any crime I wouldnt come out either, why cause Id know that I would be going to jail, same differance. A crime is a crime so come here legally , apply for that work visa,and stop worring.Id also like to see her facts as it sounds like most are just made up and have no merit.


Philip Daniels on Oct 26, 2007 at 17:22:43 said:

We spend huge sums of money to aid those in need in other countries. Why don't we do the same for citizens from other countries living within our borders? While we should feel compassion for those in need, and acknowledge that there is a definite need for the services they provide, we must also acknowledge that they are breaking the law every day they live in this country without documentation. They use resources without contributing to the tax base. As a mostly capitalist society, we should be following the rules of supply and demand. There is a supply of cheap labor and a high demand for it. The government should make that labor accessible by instituting some kind of migrant labor program. These laborers would have to register, get drivers licenses should they wish to drive, and pay taxes on the income they earn. Will it make it more expensive to hire them? Yes, but not dramatically more. They will be taxpayers, and therefore eligible for much needed benefits. They won't have to live in fear of being discovered and deported. We could waste less money trying to keep people out. I realize most of this is off topic, but isn't this really the root of the issue?


name on Oct 26, 2007 at 16:46:47 said:

my feelings are mixed. i do not support undocumented immigration as i have seen, first hand, the devastion to the california school district. on the other hand, to turn a blind eye is idiotic, and no one deserves to be treated or to exist as sub humans. however, if these are mexican citizens working illegally, it is their gov't who should be economically responsible, while us employers should not hire illegally unless they are willing to subsidize the legal process of making citizens. it is not racism, it is pragmatism, this is a serious, highly charged and sensitive issue. people understandably seeking change and improvement, but there are ways and there areways tyo do things


Angela Valenzuela on Oct 26, 2007 at 16:40:31 said:

UCLA Professor Leo Estrada is right. These workers are going to be needed even more now with this devastation. Rather than paying the prevailing wage in the rebuilding of New Orleans, the government waived this requirement in order to pave the way for the hiring of immigrant labor. Georgia was similarly rebuilt after Hurricane Andrew and also, later, the olympic park in Atlanta during the international olympics. Undocumented labor is definitely drawn to our country, and then willfully mindless individuals conveniently and in a self-serving manner wishes these people out.


Esther Franklin on Oct 26, 2007 at 15:33:45 said:

It is sad that it takes a tragedy to make us realize how much some of the \"invisable\" people in our lives help with providing food, etc. Thank you for your article, Amanda


truth machine on Oct 26, 2007 at 15:14:43 said:

It would be a win if sociopaths like Johnny would drop dead.


Cecilia Chavez on Oct 26, 2007 at 14:46:55 said:

We rely on these people for such an important industry in this country. How shameful that we treat them this badly. The part in the article where men were arrested for taking tents is so sad. Besides compassion and humanity, what happened "everyone banding together in times of trouble??" I guess that only applies if you are documented and this is creating a caste of people in this country who work so hard in neccessary industries but that are vulnerable to everything and have no rights. So sad. Is there any contact info for the people helping. I would like to volunteer!


Kristina on Oct 26, 2007 at 14:06:41 said:

it is unfortunate...i hope things will get better for these people and perhaps articles like this will open someones eyes. I am proud of you Amanda!


Teresa Carrillo on Oct 26, 2007 at 13:21:11 said:

This article points to one more way that it is so problematic to pretend that undocumented workers are not part of our society. We need to come to terms with our dependence on undocumented labor and give this important sector of our workforce the access and justice that they deserve, including relief from natural disasters.


Mary on Oct 26, 2007 at 13:13:47 said:

No, not win-win. Much the contrary. Are you proud that the food on your table is produced by people who live in tents? What about the fact that they chose to come here and do so, because it seemed the best way to survive and to help their families? Says a lot for NAFTA's benign influence on the Mexican economy, no?


Mabel on Oct 26, 2007 at 13:12:03 said:

Very good and brave story. We should show more compassion to those who don't have resources like most of us. We are all human beings after all, aren't we?


Luz Argelia Gomez on Oct 26, 2007 at 13:09:41 said:

It is very easy to read this article and have NO pity on people who are suffering the real effects of this devastating fire. Some people see undocumented immigrants as invaders, and I cannot help but to feel sorry for those people. Those people obviously do not understand the importance of an unofficial work force in the U.S. Nor do they realize that we are all people, regardless of race or creed, and that the true sign of a country's greatness is NOT how they treat their citizens, but rather how they treat those who are NOT citizens. When did we lose the ability to feel bad for people just because they don't have a green card? Suffering is suffering, no matter where you are or how and why you ended up in the U.S.A. I congratulate you and NAM for your efforts to bring to light how ALL people have been affected by this clearly devastating fire.


joseph rodriguez on Oct 26, 2007 at 11:52:40 said:

Thank you for writing this important story!


Johnny on Oct 26, 2007 at 04:54:43 said:

Boo-hoo.

Maybe the invaders will leave the country.

Win-win since you tell us how cruelly these illegal aliens are treated.

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