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As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Local Migrant Farmworkers Afraid to Seek Healthcare for the Virus
Philly

As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Local Migrant Farmworkers Afraid to Seek Healthcare for the Virus

A change to the public charge rule allows authorities to deport migrants expected to use public benefits. Now, migrant farmworkers are worried they will be punished for seeking coronavirus testing or treatment.

COVID-19 numbers are spiking in farmworker communities throughout the United States. Regions with large migrant worker populations like New Jersey’s Cumberland County have seen 3,076 cases and 154 deaths, and nearby Chester County, Pennsylvania has faced a chilling 4,295 cases and 334 deaths.

The high infection and mortality rates are not due to a neglect of COVID-19 safety guidelines among farm laborers, but are a result of worker commodification. Individuals are forced to live in tightly cramped barracks-style facilities, rooming houses, motels, dormitories, and mobile homes as they toil through the pandemic with minimal safety oversight.

The 70,000 foreign-born farmworkers in Pennsylvania are the cornerstone of the state’s $7.9 billion agriculture industry, but are not provided job security, paid vacations, paid sick leave, health insurance, or overtime pay. And while employees in other industries can legally organize for safer working conditions and health insurance, farmworkers have to stay silent—or risk retaliation for speaking up.

This oppression and fear permeate the farmworkers’ personal lives as well. In 2018, the Trump administration ordered changes to the public charge rule, which allows authorities to consider if immigrants will use public health programs when determining if they will be allowed to move forward in the U.S. immigration process.

Because of the rule, migrant farmworkers experiencing COVID-19 symptoms are concerned that seeking medical care will be considered a public charge inadmissibility, stripping them of their temporary visa or chance for permanent residency in the United States.

“Many of our community members have expressed the fear of going to get tested or heading to the hospital for fear of deportation. It did not help when the family of a Guatemalan man being treated at Jefferson Torresdale Hospital was told that he would be sent back to his home country for further medical treatment. Fortunately, his deportation was halted for four weeks, but this instilled a new fear in the community: If I get sick and am hospitalized for COVID, are they able to send me back?” shared Juntos community liason Elvia Ramirez-Vidal.

This question is reflective of the anxieties felt by migrants in the state who are forced to weigh their priorities. Even when encouraged to seek medical care at community clinics that serve patients regardless of their legal status or ability to pay, many remain concerned that taking advantage of such services will be used as ammunition against them in their efforts to gain residency.

While the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has stated that it will be suspending enforcement of the public charge rule for those seeking preventative services and treatment for COVID-19, the update has been seldom publicized—and will likely remain unheeded.

If greater awareness is spread about the public charge rule suspension, it is doubtful that the news will increase the willingness of migrant laborers to be tested or receive treatment for coronavirus. In a country that regularly lures immigrants into missteps that are grounds for deportation, individuals accustomed to anticipating legal traps are unlikely to regard the USCIS notice as a corroboration of safety.

“People who are fearful are not going to be reading the fine print of policy, and if in doubt they will stay away from being tested and treated,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University and adviser to the World Health Organization in a New York Times article.

As summer stretches on, migrant laborers continue to live and work in the absence of mandated farm operator sanitation checks and federal safety rules. And as more crews are being sent to gather ripening crops and deliver them to other regions, there is an expectation that the virus will spread rapidly among and between Pennsylvania’s agricultural communities.

Working while ill is the only option for many. Even as Pennsylvania farmworkers are seeing their first opportunity for paid sick and childcare leave through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), individuals are often unable to take time off and receive treatment since FFCRA funds only comprise two-thirds of a worker’s weekly pay.

“With an already meager average hourly wage of $13.34 or less and no right to receive overtime premiums, Pennsylvania farmworkers are likely to be hit even harder by the economic and physical effects of the pandemic,” notes Liliana Bierer of Philadelphia Legal Assistance.

Cover photo by Dietmar Reichle on Unsplash.

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Avery Matteo
Avery is a junior at Bryn Mawr College majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in English. She is currently an Editorial Intern at Green Philly. In her free time, you can find her curled up with an iced coffee, a book, and her adorable dog Cosmo. View all posts by Avery Matteo

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