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 Bustle.com. 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.