No Sanctuary in Fire-Stricken California’s Immigrant Communities

No Sanctuary in Fire-Stricken California’s Immigrant Communities

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.


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.”

Armando Elenes, an organizer with United Farm Workers in Santa Rosa, says the air is “still very unhealthy,” requiring safety equipment that meets OSHA standards. It’s unclear whether growers are adhering, he adds. Even under normal conditions, the work in the grape fields involves “being outside for those extended periods of time,” he says, and “it can be dangerous, especially if you suffer from asthma or [other respiratory] conditions.” Even under normal work conditions, nearly 10 percent of workers surveyed reported suffering injury or poisoning on the job in the past year.

Although farmworkers are often treated as seasonal labor and a peripheral part of the social fabric, according to the health survey “70 percent of California’s hired farmworkers were stable, settled, and living with family members.” In contrast to the bucolic image of viticulture as a boutique artisanal industry, distanced from mainstream industrial agriculture, the area’s luxury tourist economy can also mask the economic insecurity typical of mainstream agriculture.

More than ever, California’s state and local authorities, as well as wine-country employers, need to recognize that their farmworkers may be seasonal but remain one of the most stable, permanent social strata of this region.

California recently passed landmark legislation to become a “sanctuary state,” which will basically bar state and local agencies from actively cooperatively with ICE enforcement actions against undocumented people across the state. But the wildfires show the many ways immigrants continue to be disproportionately exposed to the cross-cutting threats of Trumpism: farm economies fueled by workers who are themselves struggling with food insecurity, migrants crammed in dilapidated housing next door to world-class wine resorts, and now intensifying wildfires fueled by climate change. All these challenges are now overlaid by fears of tightening borders and rising discrimination across the Southwest. There’s no real “sanctuary” in communities dealing with these rising hardships. But then again, this community has found its own sanctuary by building social resilience through organizing and mutual aid—a source of security that they hope will outlast the fire season and outlive Trump.

“We’ve been here for 30 years,” says Hernandez of La Luz. “People trust us…. They know that LL will be here tomorrow if they need it.”

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