In this episode of Who Belongs? we look at the reality facing undocumented immigrants and migrant farmworkers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We hear from three researchers who discuss some of their recent and upcoming articles that look at ICE raids targeting immigrant communities despite shelter-in-place orders, as well as the conditions of farmworkers who are putting themselves at risk in order to keep the country fed.
The guests are:
Seth M. Holmes, PhD, MD, is on faculty in the Division of Society and Environment and the Joint Program in Medical Anthropology. A cultural and medical anthropologist and physician, he has worked on social hierarchies, health inequities, and the ways in which such asymmetries are naturalized, normalized, and resisted in the context of transnational im/migration, agro-food systems, and health care. He has received national and international awards from the fields of anthropology, sociology, and geography, including the Margaret Mead Award. In addition to scholarly publications, he has written for popular media such as The Huffington Post and Salon.com and spoken on multiple NPR, PRI, Pacifica Radio and Radio Bilingüe radio programs.
Miriam Magaña López is a first-generation immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico. Miriam has a BA in Anthropology from Macalester College and an MPH from the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. Currently she works as a Research and Policy Analyst at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, primarily focused on understanding how economic, political and social structures impact the health of immigrant farm workers. Recently, she conducted ethnographic fieldwork among vineyard workers to understand how employment regimes influence vineyard workers’ integration in Sonoma Valley. Miriam is also a volunteer organizer with Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee (MIRAC) focused on passing a Driver’s License for all bill and stopping the Hennepin County Sheriff Department from cooperating with ICE.
Vera L. Chang is a UC Berkeley Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Doctoral Student; National Science Foundation Fellow; Clif Bar Family Foundation Fellow; and Berkeley Food Institute Researcher. Vera’s doctoral research focuses on agro-food systems, human rights, and social change. She is currently studying how worker-led movements can create shifts in power within U.S.-based corporate food chains. Vera recently completed a Solutions Journalism Network Fellowship to conduct an investigative reporting project on solutions to rampant sexual violence in U.S. agricultural fields. Her research and journalism have been highlighted by the Aspen Institute, Worldwatch Institute, and Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The articles mentioned in this episode include:
Miriam Magaña López: I'm personally hoping that this pandemic helps us all realize how we're all connected and why each member in our society plays a specific role, and you don't necessarily have to have a college education or have aspirations to be a doctor, to be someone that's worthy of access to resources in the U.S.
Marc Abizeid: Hello and welcome to Who Belongs, a podcast from the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley. My name is Marc Abizeid, one of the hosts of the show. In this episode, we're looking at the reality facing undocumented immigrants and migrant farm workers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. We'll hear from three researchers who will discuss some of their recent upcoming articles that look at ICE raids targeting immigrant communities despite shelter in place orders as well as the conditions of farm workers who are putting themselves at risk in order to keep the country fed.
Marc Abizeid: The guests are Seth Holmes, a cultural and medical anthropologist and physician and a faculty member in the division of society and environment at UC Berkeley as well as in the medical anthropology joint program with the UCSF. The second guest is Miriam Magaña Lopez, who is a research and policy analyst at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at UC Berkeley and a volunteer organizer with the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee. The third guest is Vera Chang, a doctoral student in the environmental science policy and management program at UC Berkeley and a researcher at the Berkeley Food Institute. Vera's doctoral research focuses on AgriFood systems, human rights and social change. Here was our conversation.
Marc Abizeid: I guess this will be for Seth and Miriam. You just had this article recently come out in the Guardian and there's going to be another version that's coming out soon in the American Journal of Public Health that looks at ICE raids and you show why these raids undermine public health and so maybe you can just begin telling us a little bit about that article and what you're arguing there.
Miriam Magaña López: Yeah, so I would say that the main argument is that ICE raids are not essential during this time. We're being told by local, state and federal government to stay home and to limit movement and the fact that ICE is still going to communities, looking for people and then moving them from their homes into a crowded detention facility is not conducive to controlling the spread of COVID-19 and the reason that we actually got started writing this article was because I saw that on March 20th, ICE actually bid for 45,095 masks, which are the masks that healthcare providers don't have to protect themselves as they're treating patients and through a quick exchange and emails that suggested that we write this article just because we found it to be super unjust that this organization that is conducting nonessential work during this time feels like they should get these masks for their workers when healthcare providers weren't even having them on the first place.
Miriam Magaña López: And yeah, so that's basically what we wanted to cover in the article, the American Journal of Public Health article. We further elaborate that point by focusing not just on immigration rates but also house detention and deportation is not conducive to controlling COVID-19 and it's actually spreading more because now you're having ICE agents going into communities, interacting with community members, taking community members from their homes to ICE detention and then deporting them, crossing different lines and then further also putting at risk people, who are also currently in detention. And so for those reasons we wanted to write the article because we think it's super important for people to realize what's going on in that. This isn't something that should, in my opinion, be happening ever, but especially during a pandemic when people's lives are at risk, we really need to be cautious about what is happening and what is considered essential and what shouldn't be.
Marc Abizeid: Seth, do you want to add anything to that and maybe elaborate those three points that you have in your upcoming article about how specifically these raids undermine public health?
Seth Holmes: Sure. So actually the week before, I had written an article with a colleague who's also a physician and an anthropologist, Lisa Bookbinder at UCLA. We did interviews with nurses and doctors across the country about the lack of personal protective equipment that is not just about protecting doctors and nurses, it's also about protecting all the future patients they'll interact with and it's about protecting our health system that is needing to take care of a lot more people than we're used to right now. And we did some background research into ways, specific decisions that the Trump administration had made that led to these shortages of N95 masks, testing equipment, ventilators and the preparedness for epidemic and pandemic response. So then when Miriam emailed me or messaged me about the 45,095 masks that ICE had bid on to be sent to all their different field offices, there were multiple reasons that we felt like we needed to write together about this at that time.
Seth Holmes: We wrote about the ways in which first of all ICE raids disrupt community lead to worse health already all the time. They separate families. They cause stress levels that make people's immune systems not work as well, etc., but then during a pandemic when everyone's being told to stay in one place, to shelter in place, the ICE raids are forcing the movement of people. So they're disregarding shelter in place, which then can lead to the spread of the virus, SARS-CoV-2. And then on top of that, they're disregarding all the calls to practice physical distancing. A group of ICE agents go together to raid a community and then they move people to overcrowded detention facilities. And there's so much evidence of the overcrowding of these detention facilities that are the perfect, horrible situation for the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that leads to COVID-19.
Seth Holmes: And then they're deporting people and there have already been multiple documented cases of people who have been deported later testing or at that time, finding out that they were positive for COVID-19. Therefore, we have documentation that the federal government is sending COVID-19 to other communities and spreading the virus. And then on top of that, the ICE is using N95 masks that we don't have enough to protect our own healthcare workers on the frontline and our own health system that we all need. So in multiple ways, it became clear that the federal government on some level is choosing to put everyone at risk in order to do these ICE raids in all these multiple ways, by spreading the virus more because they're not allowing shelter in place, by spreading the virus more because they're not allowing physical distancing and by spreading the virus more, which can be deadly for multiple people by utilizing N95 masks and not providing them to doctors and nurses.
Seth Holmes: The federal government could make very different decisions and that's what we called for. One would be give N95 masks to doctors and nurses, not ICE agents, stop ICE raids, stop detention and stop deportation. All of those things are important. The other reason we both wanted to write about this is Miriam's involved in the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee and they've been doing protests of detention at this time while physically distancing. So they've been doing protests in cars, for example, and then I've been in touch with research collaborators who are immigrant farm workers themselves who have been telling me that it's confusing to them to get a letter that says that they're essential workers, but they still hear that people are being detained, deported, and raided.
Seth Holmes: So, what does that mean to have a letter that says the federal government tells you your essential and you should still be able to work when you have evidence on the TV and in the news that people like you are not being treated as though they're essential at all? So all those things made it feel like we needed to take a break from everything else we were doing and write about this at this time.
Marc Abizeid: Do you have updates on the raid since you wrote the article if these actions are ongoing, if they're still happening in California, in different places or if people are listening to recommendations like the ones that you've listed, that these needed to be stopped for public health reasons and that these resources need to be put into hospitals where medical care workers need them more than these ICE agents.
Miriam Magaña López: The bid that I did put for the 45,000 masks, there was some backlash from the public and they did end up canceling that bid and in regards to raids, we know they're still happening. I don't know, Seth, if you know of any specific cases.
Seth Holmes: Well, since we wrote the article for the Guardian, we followed up with more research for the American Journal of Public Health article that's on similar topic with more evidence about the health risks and we found that even though ICE made a public statement that during this pandemic their top priority is safety and health and wellbeing of everyone, the day they made that statement, they did three raids in multiple places, including in New York, the area with the highest prevalence and incidents of COVID-19, so it seems to be that the federal government is making one set of statements to the public, but acting entirely the opposite and continuing to put people at danger, at risk.
Seth Holmes: So we hope that both the Guardian piece can push public opinion some and that the article in the American Journal of Public Health might push Health Departments and public health officials to push back on the other parts of the government that are engaging in and supporting these kinds of raids, detentions and deportations.
Marc Abizeid: Over the weekend. I saw that the administration was talking about cutting the salaries of some migrant workers because they're saying they want to try to help the agricultural industry, which is being harmed. Another thing is that they've ended asylum policies at the border invoking this crisis. I want to know if you were concerned if they would use this crisis as an excuse or kind of a justification to be able to intensify their targeting of certain immigrant groups.
Miriam Magaña López: Something that I personally worry about is that there is so much happening and there's so much fear about that pandemic and people are bombarded with news articles about it every day that it's very easy for the administration to sort of do things without people noticing. And as you mentioned with the new process for asylum applications, people aren't even given a chance. They're come to the border and they're automatically sent back without having any sort of application process, the reason being that to stop the spread of COVID-19 and using that as the excuse to not process this. So it is terrifying to see people who are fleeing violence and wanting to come to the U.S. and some of their applications to be refugees here in the U.S. aren't getting that opportunity.
Miriam Magaña López: And I also did read that article about you said, I think it was an NPR article that was talking about reducing the wages of farm workers as a way to sort of help and support the agriculture industry. And I was very upset as I read it because we see that and it's always happened that the workers that always get targeted in the name of saving this industry when we're also seeing that the New York Times posted an article that stated that farm workers are considered essential, but now because there is so many people who are unemployed and in desperate situations they're sort of using this opportunity to reduce their wages because I think people will still take the jobs because something is better than nothing.
Miriam Magaña López: So, I do have a fear of its policies being changed to drastically target immigrants because there's so much happening that it's hard for people to note it than to pressure for it to not happen and the policies at the border with people seeking refugee status, it sort of happened without a lot of people knowing about it and because people don't know about it, people can't be outraged and people have so many other things to worry about that no one's really looking for it. So that's something that I've been thinking a lot about.
Seth Holmes: I mean one thing I might add is the whole proposal is not actually even to protect the agriculture industry because farm workers are a critical core part of agriculture. So the proposal itself is to protect agro corporations or large farm owners, but it's not actually. If it were to protect the entire industry, it would also be protecting farm workers and if the federal government is calling them essential workers, but then proposing that they can make under the minimum wage at the same time, they're not actually protecting agriculture or even agriculture industry, they're really protecting the owners of the large corporations and the large farms that are involved, which in the long run won't work.
Seth Holmes: All of us need to be able to eat during a pandemic and we need to be able to eat after a pandemic and if we don't protect farm workers and if we don't protect them both with things like masks and the ability to physically distance, but also if we don't protect them with enough funds, enough salary that they can support their families and buy enough food for their own families then none of us will be able to eat. Our food system will be in jeopardy.
Marc Abizeid: Maybe we can elaborate a little bit more on that point, but first address the question of safety for the farm workers. I understand there's like two and a half million migrant farm workers in the United States who are considered essential, so what kind of protective gear, what does it look on the farms where they're working right now? How are they physically distancing? How are they staying safe and what kind of resources are they being provided, so they can carry out their work? Vera, maybe you can take this question.
Vera L. Chang: Just to lay out some background issue. Farm and food workers have historically through present time, has been systematically excluded from federal and state health and safety protections, so there's nothing new about that part. There's the lack of protection combined with like a lack of enforcement of the few existing laws remaining has resulted in really grave inequalities for farm workers for a long time. This has resulted in such inequities as the farm worker fatality rate being five times that of the average American worker.
Vera L. Chang: So the difference now with the pandemic is that the conditions have just become exponentially worse and there is a confluence of reasons why workers have no way often to socially distance or shelter in place. Farm workers, labor shoulder-shoulder and mega processing plant workers are packed into cramped school buses sitting side by side. There could be up to 50 workers in a bus. Workers often share not only housing with strangers, but also beds with strangers. There's little ventilation. Sometimes, there's no sanitation. And for many workers, which Seth and I just wrote an article, absence from work due to illness risks termination. And these are workers that already have really high rates of hypertension and respiratory impairments, which are conditions that are linked with severe COVID-19 disease.
Marc Abizeid: And so what happens in the case, let's say a worker gets sick, what happens to that worker? Do they continue working even if they're showing symptoms suspected of maybe having contracted COVID or are they isolated? Because there's also that question of people who handle food that gets consumed.
Miriam Magaña López: So the majority of farmworkers do not have insurance sponsored through their employer. Maybe they don't have health insurance at all and so when people get sick and a lot of them are in situations where if they don't work, they don't get paid, and so even if they are sick, some workers are forced to continue to go to work, to provide for their family. And as Vera mentioned, if you don't show up because you're sick and yet the outcome is that you're going to be fired, some workers are forced to do that and if they have no protections or nothing that their employer's doing to make sure that they're safe and healthy, then at the end of the day we're all going to be impacted by that, by people who are handling our food, who can't afford to stay home, who can't afford to go see a doctor when they're sick and are sort of having to work through that illness. And obviously depending on their symptoms, if they're able to get up and go to work, they're going to do it because there is that need to survive.
Vera L. Chang: Yeah. I echo all those points that Miriam said and another major issue is the dearth of transportation, private and public, to nearby hospitals and clinics. Like a lot of rural areas where farm workers are and processing workers are, don't actually have any hospitals. Seth and I interviewed a group that is advocating for a hospital in a town that houses 25,000 farm workers and there's not a single hospital there, and they described their community as being dry tinder in the path of the wildfire that's COVID-19. And unfortunately, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which is the group of tomato pickers that's trying to get an alternative field hospital received a response from the County government and the Florida Department of Health that told them that the concept of a field hospital has been evaluated, but determined unnecessary at this time. So they're still looking for a lot of public support to make this happen.
Marc Abizeid: What about in this specific time? I don't know if you know the answer to this, but there's a lot of talk about, for the general population, testing has to be free for this virus. True to their saying, treatment has to be free. In the case of, let's say, undocumented migrant farm workers who gets sick, I mean, what are their options?
Seth Holmes: Sure. So, as Miriam mentioned, the vast majority of farm workers don't have any health insurance. The last estimate that I saw was under 15%, so if they have health needs, if they get sick, they're dependent on nonprofit clinics or federally qualified health centers or maybe there's somewhere where there just isn't any healthcare available. So, we need medical care for everyone. Really, ideally we need something like Medicare for everyone because otherwise there are always loopholes even within the Affordable Care Act. The Affordable Care Act increased health insurance rates for most people, but actually in many categories of immigrants, it decreased health insurance rates because many categories of immigrants, including some categories of authorized immigrants were explicitly excluded from the Affordable Care Act as a part of the negotiation for it to get through.
Seth Holmes: So while it was a great plan that we should keep or greatly change toward Medicare for all and not go back to entirely employer-based system, it hasn't been great for farm workers. So, we've been talking with farm workers about the protections they've been offered and so far, the protections have been the piece of paper that says they're essential. So, the farm workers I know have been wearing bandanas over their faces, but that's just of their own accord to protect themselves. They haven't been provided with any kinds of masks or gloves or anything. And they're also a little bit nervous about wearing bandanas because in many parts of the country, they already receive racist statements from people and if they have a bandana on, their experience is that they might be targeted or even more.
Seth Holmes: But the thing that's been hopeful at the same time is that several immigrant groups from the Coalition of Immokalee workers to Venceremos to Migrant Justice to PCUN in Oregon to the United Farm Workers nationally to Familias Unidas por la Justicia in Washington State to the Frente de Organizaciones Sociales and many more, a group called Cosecha, a group called Undocu 805. They're all putting out proposals and plans and demands. They're saying if we are communities of people providing you with food, you need to not just value our labor, you also need to value our lives because you're dependent on us and we're in relation with each other. Our work makes your life and your health possible in this pandemic and always and you need to respect us and we need protections for our labor and protections for our health at the same time.
Seth Holmes: So I think one of the things that we tried to focus on in the article that's coming out this week that Vera lead authored was the ways in which farm worker organizations really need to be listened to at this moment because they are making statements, they are making proposals, they are making plans for better outcomes during this pandemic and afterward.
Miriam Magaña López: On regards to the question about access to healthcare, I also wanted to add that in the American Journal of Public Health article that we published, we also discussed how these raids are sowing distrusting communities and research has shown that if communities see a raid, they're not likely to go seek care. So that's another added barrier to not just not only having health insurance and not having access to health care, but even if you have access to a doctor, you may not go get treatment because you fear that you might be deported while you're there.
Miriam Magaña López: Even though ICE has stated that they won't be deporting people who seek medical care unless it's a very unique situation because raids are still happening and because we are sort of seeing mixed messages coming from the government, I still think that this is impacting the perceptions that people have even though ICE has said as statement that people do have fear of being deported when they go to the clinic, when they go to the hospital, which will put people at risk for not getting the treatment that they need, not just themselves, but their family members, their neighbors, and the rest of people that they come in physical contact with. So I think that's also something that's super important and a strong argument to why are raids are not essential at this time, period.
Marc Abizeid: So let's focus on that issue of the food itself. What's going to happen to food production on these farms, which is the topic of the upcoming Guardian article that Vera and Seth co-wrote. So can you tell us a little bit about what that situation looks like?
Vera L. Chang: Yeah, so the question is very simple. We're looking at when you don't protect essential workers who pick process and packer food, what happens to our supply chain in all of us. As Seth had mentioned earlier, the Department of Homeland Security earlier this month had classified farm and other food workers as essential. They're part of the critical infrastructure workforce that has a special responsibility to maintain a normal work schedule. I know their designation as essential workers as apps, the release measures recognizing their importance are not commensurate to the risks that they're taking.
Vera L. Chang: Earlier we had talked about the many things, the many protections and resources and provisions that workers are doing without. They're going without gloves, masks, hand sanitizer. They lack health care and childcare. They lack protections like six feet of social distancing. They're lacking fair compensation in the form of hazard pay, so food and farm workers had been left out of not only federal aid but also state aid. And meanwhile, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which hasn't heard of health and safety of workers throughout the country, says that it's helpless even though Congress has given it an obligation to keep workers safe from grave danger.
Vera L. Chang: So, our article calls for protection. We call on the public, businesses, states, and especially the federal government for resources to support workers' lives, which would then support our food supply and support our national interests. So, the article basically issues a dire warning if we don't protect workers immediately, we're not going to have enough food for anyone and an unprecedented national hunger crisis could be looming.
Marc Abizeid: Seth, did you want to add anything to that and maybe talk a little bit more about what you mentioned about the workers themselves, the farm workers, they have their own kind of lists of demands that they've been saying, "This is what we need." So, maybe you can share some of those with us.
Seth Holmes: I'll speak a little more generally and then maybe Vera could talk about some of the proposals and lists of demands with the groups that she works closely with also. So, in general, there always for a long time has been this irony that all of our health is dependent on the work, the bodies of farm workers who harvest, who plant food, who tend the crops, who harvest the food, who process it, etc., food chain workers in general. And yet they've been excluded from many forms of labor protection, health protections, health insurance provision. And during this pandemic, it becomes even more harmfully ironic where they're given a piece of paper that says they're essential, but they're not given health insurance coverage during this time or ever and the way that they work isn't changed at all for them to be able to physically distance and they're not protected from the possibility of raids by immigration agents, etc.=
Seth Holmes: So that irony of one group of people's health being harmed and put at risk for everyone else's health to be raised and protected is very painful. It's a relationship we're all in. Every time we eat any fruits or vegetables, we're in a relationship with the people who provide that to us. Every time we eat any food, we're in a relationship with food chain workers. Many of whom are immigrants, not all of whom are, and so somehow we as a society, as a country need to respect that relationship. We need to recognize that one of the last people who handled the fruit or vegetables or the other food that we're eating is an immigrant, is a food chain worker. We need to value their work. We need to treat them with respect. We need to protect them so that they are protected as human beings and also so our food system is protected and we can continue to be able to eat.
Seth Holmes: And Vera, could you talk a little bit more about some of the other demands that Venceremos and Migrant Justice have been proposing?
Vera L. Chang: Migrant Justice is a dairy worker led organization based in Vermont and they're pressing the state to include workers' needs and their crisis response. Venceremos is a group of poultry workers that are petitioning that companies like Tyson and Cargill, all the major poultry processing companies, provide something really simple which is sick leave.
Vera L. Chang: And I guess just like one thing that I'll say about what Seth was talking about in terms of worker participation is my research at Berkeley focuses on worker led movements for social change and I've been specifically studying a model that was designed by this group of tomato pickers that I mentioned, the Coalition of Immokalee workers, it's called worker driven social responsibility. And the premise is really powerful.
Vera L. Chang: Workers are experts in their own conditions. They're experts in the problems that they face, they're experts in the abuse that they experience and they're therefore experts in solutions to those problems. The idea is that you should listen to their calls to action and take them seriously. So in our investigations, a dairy worker told Seth and I, the worker community is afraid, farmers are worried, no one is going to replace us when workers get sick. Notice that it's not if workers get sick, it's when workers get sick and the outcome of this is tragically simple. Some workers are already starting to die and that a danger to a worker is a danger to everybody.
Seth Holmes: Well, one of the farm worker organizers who we spoke with also said people want our labor, but they don't want our lives, and I think that that quote highlights how painful and harmful the reality is of someone's work being deemed essential and actually being essential for all of us to be able to live, and yet their bodies, their health, their future not being supported, not being protected. I think it's time for us as a society, as a country to understand how interlinked and how much of a relationship we have with food chain workers and with immigrants overall, and to shift our priorities to respect that.
Vera L. Chang: Yeah. This worker was describing how the injustice of the system is being completely laid bare for everyone to see and it ties with the irony that Seth was talking about in terms of putting workers with underlying chronic health conditions, but without social safety nets in the frontlines of battle and putting our lowest paid, most vulnerable workers there to try to feed all of us.
Marc Abizeid: And then Miriam, did you have any last thoughts?
Miriam Magaña López: I do think that for a really long time a lot of immigrant rights movements have focused on pushing this narrative to tell people that immigrants can contribute to the U.S. and they're getting college educated and they're doing these things to sort of help us move forward in society and for a long time working class, immigrants weren't really included in that narrative. We were hearing from dreamers who went to college and were becoming doctors or becoming lawyers or becoming writers, and that's why immigrants are so important. And now during this pandemic, we're hearing more why the farm workers who are undocumented are so important, why people who are working in sanitation are so important, why immigrants were working in warehouses, shipping our boxes to our home are so important or working in the packing industries are so important.
Miriam Magaña López: And I'm personally hoping that this pandemic helps us all realize how we're all connected and why each member in our societies plays a specific role, and you don't necessarily have to have a college education or have aspiration to be a doctor, to be someone that's worthy have access to resources in the U.S. And I really hope that this makes people sympathetic to the situations that immigrants are having to endure always, not just during a pandemic, but it's definitely been elevated during this time period.
Marc Abizeid: And that concludes this episode of Who Belongs. I'd like to thank our guests: Seth Holmes, who is a cultural and medical anthropologist and physician, Miriam Magaña Lopez, who is a research and policy analyst at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues and Vera Chang, a doctoral student in the Environmental Science Policy and Management Program at UC Berkeley. For links to their articles mentioned in this interview and for a transcript of this episode, visit our website at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. Thank you for listening.