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Lena I. Jackson
Lena I. Jackson
As the United States grapples with the latest surge in coronavirus, some workers are trying to cope with illness and economic hardship while also facing the threat of deportation. In California’s Coachella Valley, agricultural workers deemed essential to the U.S. food supply are suffering in the shadows, getting support from grassroots organizations -- but not government. Stephanie Sy reports.
As the nation grapples with the latest surge in COVID-19 cases, some workers are trying to cope with illness and economic hardship, even while fearing deportation.
Stephanie Sy visited the Coachella Valley in California, where workers deemed essential by the federal government are suffering in the shadows, and finding support in a patchwork of grassroots community organizations.
Nine-year old Rosita and her friend bounce on a trampoline, while her mother, Marisela, looks on, weighed down by worries.
Marisela (through translator):
I am sick with thyroid cancer.
Marisela, who preferred we not use her last name, has continued to work in the fields even through the pandemic.
I'm afraid because it's different in the fields. I'm afraid of being infected or that someone in my family will become infected. And I have told my doctor that stress might be affecting me as well.
Not far away, Sonia Baturroni, a diabetic without access to health insurance, is being squeezed financially.
Sonia Baturroni (through translator):
Without work and food, we have to feed ourselves. The rent keeps coming. The bills keep coming. So my concern is, how am I going to do it?
Both of these women are single mothers who, because of their immigration status, are ineligible for the COVID relief checks that have helped millions of Americans get by.
The Coachella Valley may be best known for its music festival, tennis tournament, and luxury resorts. But the eastern part of the valley is a separate world. Almost 50 percent of residents live below the poverty line. And winds here blow toxic dust from the decaying Salton Sea, California's largest lake.
We have a large group of people that are living in conditions that you don't see in other parts of the country, mobile homes that are old, that are falling apart.
At a community event offering free flu vaccines, we met Conrado Barzaga, CEO of the Desert Healthcare District and Foundation, which oversees health care services in the region.
If you get caught with COVID-19, the closest hospital is probably one hour away for most people here.
COVID has taken its toll on the low-wage workers, many who work in the area's vast date farms and make up the backbone of the valley's $600 million agricultural economy.
Across the country, coronavirus has infected more than 125,000 farmworkers, people who literally keep the country fed.
Farmworkers can face tough conditions even in good times. But during the pandemic, they were deemed essential and kept working, even though many lack the basic safety net they would need if they got sick.
Farmworker Marisol Cisneros and her children got COVID over the summer.
Marisol Cisneros (through translator):
You feel frustrated because you have to go to work, because we live day to day. And if you get sick, or your kids get sick, you have no choice but to go to work.
After she tested positive, she did stop going to work, but now can barely make ends meet. Half of the farmworkers across the U.S. are undocumented.
They can't get unemployment. They don't have Social Security numbers. And it's impossible for them to get any of the benefits that one would expect while they live in the United States.
As essential workers.
As essential workers who cannot eat.
The food supply depends on these workers.
You got it.
Rosa Lucas, a nurse practitioner, has been working in the community for over 30 years, and says COVID has presented unprecedented challenges.
When you're picking in the field, you can be sort of apart. But then it's lunchtime. They go at the same time. And all of their — they sit on a bench that's under a shade on a truck. And they're all there together with their masks off, eating and coughing and drinking. And they go home, and they get other people sick.
The fear of being deported, says the county supervisor, Manuel Perez, himself a son of former farmworkers, creates a dire situation.
They're fearful of even being tested. And if they do get tested, they're very reluctant to let them know, to let them contact tracer know who they have been around for the last few days. So, that's a very real issue.
Since an earlier spike in cases, Perez says they have ramped up education and outreach, and have distributed funds to a patchwork of nonprofit groups, such as Lift to Rise, an organization that provides rental assistance to people like Sonia Baturroni.
Thank God there have been many organizations that have helped us financially.
There's definitely a sense of kind of desperation.
Lift to Rise's deputy director, Araceli Palafox, has seen the lines for help swell in recent weeks.
You have families coming with their children. And you can you can kind of sense from the children kind of the same traumatic experience that perhaps the parents or the head of households are going through.
Marisela and her daughter have depended on community organizations during COVID. On this day, they received a package of household essentials from Luz Gallegos of Todec Legal Center.
Then there are California disaster guides, so prevention, because they're going to come out of COVID, but they still have to continue prevention.
Since mid-September, Gallegos has gone door to door, dropping off deliveries to farmworkers in need, many of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.
But Lift to Rise's Palafox worries that things like food aid and housing support are only temporary fixes.
We always say internally that this work is like triaging oxygen. This is rental assistance. It's a one-time $3,500. We know that we need permanent solutions, so folks stay permanently housed.
This is a Band-Aid.
These are the types of measures and policies that we need to advance if we really, truly care about essential workers and, in this case, farmworkers. But it's not going to be enough until we have comprehensive immigration reform.
For now, Band-Aids are all many immigrant essential workers can hope for.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy in the Coachella Valley, California.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
Casey is a producer for NewsHour's digital video team. She has won several awards for her work in broadcast journalism, including a national Edward R. Murrow award.
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