Undocumented Farmworkers Fall Behind in Coronavirus Pandemic

Undocumented laborers toiling on U.S. farms may be especially vulnerable to the new coronavirus—and they probably can’t look to Congress for much help.

“I don’t think anybody’s going to back legislation that would say we’re going to start giving health care to undocumented workers,” Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a telephone interview.

But providing health care to immigrant laborers and suspending deportations is exactly what many immigrant advocates and public health analysts say is needed. Health care for undocumented farmworkers is already limited, and fear of deportation discourages the ill from seeking medical care. As a result, undocumented laborers are putting themselves at risk as well as potentially increasing the spread of Covid-19 to the broader population.

The states with the highest farmworker populations—California, Texas, Washington, Florida, Oregon, and North Carolina—include some hit hardest so far by the new coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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With almost half of all farmworkers lacking work authorization, undocumented laborers may be particularly vulnerable to infection, advocates say.

“Pre-coronavirus, there were plenty of other illnesses that were not being treated” by migrant labor health services, said Steve Suppan, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy senior policy analyst. “This would add one more.”

Photographer: SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images
Farm workers harvest lettuce in a field outside of Brawley, Calif., January 2017.

Migrant health-care access is among “the poorest in the United States” and that could spell bad news for agribusiness, which relies “overwhelmingly” on immigrant labor, Suppan said in a telephone interview.

Arranging a health checkup in the first place is a hurdle for undocumented laborers: “The majority of farmworkers would not report illness because they’re afraid of being deported,” Suppan said.

This leads employees to “go to work sicker and put us at risk,” said Georges Benjamin, American Public Health Association executive director, in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Industry Fears

Growers and ranchers share worries about the health of their labor force and their availability to work, Michael Marsh, National Council of Agricultural Employers president and CEO, said in a telephone interview Monday.

For ill laborers, “the answer to health care for undocumented workers is the emergency room,” Grassley said.

A researcher at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, however, described undocumented farmworkers as a “lower-risk population.”

“Most of these folks are working outside,” said James Carafano, vice president of the group’s Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. “A lot of them are not in areas with a concentration of urban people. Almost none of them are 65-years-old.”

Additionally, testing will be free and not “tied to immigration status in any way,” Carafano said in a telephone interview Monday.

CDC Director Robert Redfield confirmed Covid-19 tests would be covered last week at a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing. The House also passed a bill (H.R. 6201) including measures for free testing, but it has yet to clear the Senate.

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Although Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) contested several measures in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, he said the pandemic will cause “a huge ripple effect through the agriculture sector.”

“The demand for food is going to drop precipitously. Prices are going to crash,” Yoho said in a telephone interview Monday. “If you can’t bring the workers in, that’s going to be devastating.”

Other Obstacles

Covid-19 means more than flu-like symptoms for undocumented laborers. Their homes and wages are on the line, too, an advocate says.

“For many farmworkers who lose their jobs as a result of coronavirus, they’ll have no unemployment insurance to fall back on,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of nonprofit Farmworker Justice. “Farmworkers can’t telecommute.”

During the pandemic, states should work to suspend evictions and debt collections locally, Goldstein said in a telephone interview Monday. The federal government should limit deportations to extreme cases, he said.

So far, California and New York state have put moratoriums on evictions.

To better protect communities, undocumented migrants need financial assistance, said Ron Bialek, Public Health Foundation president.

“If we want to protect the general public from further spread of Covid-19, a moratorium on deportations is necessary,” Bialek said in an emailed statement Tuesday.

Some “2.4 million farmworkers in this country work on our farms and ranches to feed us,” Goldstein said. “The coronavirus makes everything much worse. We need solutions.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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