October 18, 2017


No Sanctuary in Fire-Stricken California’s Immigrant Communities


Toxic smoke, destroyed homes, and fears of deportation are hitting immigrant communities all at once across Northern California.


By Michelle Chen


There’s more than one crisis burning in the hills of Northern California. As the area’s landscape still smolders from the wildfires, the immigrant workers who sustain the local farming economy are facing a long, dry season.


Prior to the blazes, migrant workers in the region struggled in a precarious labor landscape of short-term contract jobs and seasonal work. Now they will struggle to rebuild their lives in a region that is seeing not only unprecedented environmental devastation and displacement but an overhanging cloud of political uncertainty.


Napa County alone is home to an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 undocumented migrants. Local authorities have tried to reassure the public that people would be offered shelter and other services regardless of legal status—and ICE is reportedly suspending “non-criminal” enforcement activities near the wildfire zone. But that’s cold comfort to people facing subtler forms of economic discrimination.


Alegría De La Cruz, chief deputy county counselor of Sonoma County, says that many undocumented immigrants are seeking “alternative shelter” rather than access to formal shelters, according to Many will suffer long-term displacement as well, and community advocates say that, because of the area’s ongoing affordable-housing crunch and the additional property losses from wildfires, immigrants will be price-gouged by predatory landlords in an area where low-income people are extremely rent-burdened already. As farm laborers, they’re usually cramped in subsidized worker housing, or living in rental housing near their worksites, often in shabby conditions, despite high rents.


According to a 2015 health survey of Sonoma County farmworkers, a typical farmworker family earning about $20,000 annually spent around half its income on rent alone. About two-thirds of farmworkers are stuck in “overcrowded dwellings,” which is linked to damaging social and public-health impacts, especially on children.


Many families relying on seasonal farming income to survive don’t work year-round. The typical farmworker household income in Sonoma County in 2012 was less than a third of the countywide household income ($24,000 annually, compared to $70,000). Overall, more than nine in 10 farmworker families reported earning too little to meet their family’s basic needs, and they are disproportionately likely to receive benefits like food stamps.


Juan Hernandez of La Luz Center in Sonoma County, a grassroots organization for farmworkers, says that those who were worst off stayed put during the blazes.


“A lot of families did not evacuate, they just kind of just hunkered down. Because in order to evacuate, you need money in order to leave, and you need money in order to come back.” Many stayed in homes without access to stable food supplies or power. La Luz’s priority is to get them hot meals and connect families with emergency-aid services, like food-subsidy cards and rental assistance.

The main challenge for their recovery is simply getting back to their jobs. “They’re worried about their home, they’re worried about their health, but they’re obviously also worried they’re losing work for the week,” Hernandez says.

Public health-care needs will intensify in the disaster’s aftermath. Most Sonoma farmworkers are uninsured, and many poorer families are priced out of basic care, even though their children should have regular access to health coverage under state and federal laws. Nearly half self-reported that they were in poor health—three-times the rate of the county as a whole. They often rely on community clinics rather than hospital care.

As these workers return to the fields, the hazards of daily living will be aggravated by the thick blanket of suffocating haze. Farmworkers generally suffer high death rates due to respiratory illness, and low-income Sonoma County adults have more severe rates of asthma diagnosis compared to adults statewide, and much higher than their wealthier neighbors’. Local community groups are distributing masks to cope with the extreme pollution. Early on, emergency information was not communicated in Spanish, in an area where most farmworkers have limited English proficiency. La Luz has been trying to educate people on air safety as they rush back to the fields, Hernandez says: “I don’t think people really understand that it’s a danger.”