When it comes to protecting their health, farmworkers in the United States face formidable barriers. Poverty, rural isolation, and limited English proficiency make accessing health care services extremely difficult. Farmworkers are also afraid to speak up about dangerous conditions in the fields for fear of losing their jobs. As if these myriad challenges were not enough, farmworkers who are often immigrants, Latinos, and people of color must concern themselves with the increasingly aggressive enforcement of immigration laws.
Undocumented farmworkers are not the only targets of these laws. In fact, lawful permanent residents make up about 10 percent of all deportations. It also affects children who have deportable parents, children, or spouses. Some allege that immigration enforcement, when tied to racial profiling, has been used to intimidate Latinos and other minority communities, regardless of their documentation status. In such an environment, farmworkers may become even less likely to access health care and even more vulnerable to occupational hazards.
In 2010, Arizona introduced SB 1070, a piece of legislation that opponents of the law said gave police and other state government officials sweeping powers to enforce federal immigration law. Since then, similar laws have passed in Alabama, Georgia, Utah, Indiana, and South Carolina. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on the constitutionality of Arizona’s SB 1070. In the decision, the court ruled against several provisions of Arizona’s SB 1070, but maintained one provision often referred to as ‘show me your papers.’ While it is not yet clear what the exact implications of the ruling will be, it will certainly restrict involvement of state governments in immigration enforcement.
Growers report that they have been losing revenue as their crops rot in the fields because migrant farmworkers have been avoiding their states. Immigration enforcement has also increased at the federal level. The past four years have seen more deportations than any period since the 1950s and the federal government has increasingly been collaborating with state and local police departments in immigration enforcement through the Secure Communities and 287(g) programs, which President Obama announced would be ending.
A recent article by Kaiser Health News found that across the country, federal, state, and local law enforcement have been staking out patients at migrant clinics and health fairs, even detaining health clinic staff members who are taking patients to appointments. As a result, migrant health care providers have noticed a drop off in the number of farmworkers seeking care and prevention services.
Aggressive immigration enforcement policies also inhibit farmworkers from raising concerns about dangerous working conditions. The Occupational Safety and Health Act and the EPA’s Worker Protection Standard protect farmworkers from being fired for protesting health and safety violations. If the farmworker lacks employment authorization, however, he or she would not be eligible for reinstatement or back pay due to a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Additionally, an employer may call the police on an uncooperative farmworker, and the police may in turn alert Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the worker’s immigration status. This is what happened earlier this year to Josue Diaz, a construction worker in Louisiana who took part in a strike to protest low wages and unsafe conditions (he and his coworkers say they were not given safety equipment). Josue ended up in deportation proceedings after the employer called the police on the strikers.
The right to a workplace free of health and safety hazards is, by law, supposed to apply to all workers without regard to immigration status. But immigrants cannot realize their rights when they live in fear. When one worker’s voice is silenced, the fields become more dangerous for everyone.