By Claudia Boyd-Barrett
Foreign-born immigrants in rural areas of the United States are facing grinding poverty, high levels of stress, discrimination and lack access to medical resources, putting their mental and physical health in jeopardy, according to a new study by the University of California, Riverside.
Ann Cheney, an assistant professor with the university’s School of Medicine, led research in Southern California’s Eastern Coachella Valley, near the border with Mexico. Between 2015 and 2016, she and her team interviewed dozens of Mexican farmworkers, farmworker advocates, community leaders and health care providers about the challenges immigrants face and the effect these have on their health.
They found that farmworkers and their families confront a profusion of difficulties in their daily lives that, when added together, create enormous amounts of stress. Such chronic stress is often a catalyst for physical illness, mental health problems, domestic violence and substance abuse, said Cheney.
“Depression is a very real concern, and just desperation,” said Cheney. “Wanting to work for your family, whether you’re a man or woman, and really struggling to be able to provide… I think that strain just becomes unmanageable at times. It can become overwhelming and lead to depression and anxiety.”
One of the most basic stressors facing these immigrants is economic. They earn very little for their work, struggle to pay for rent and utilities, and often live in substandard housing such as dilapidated trailers, Cheney said. Because many are undocumented, they are also vulnerable to workplace exploitation. Researchers heard reports of immigrants not getting paid unless they meet a certain quota, prompting them to work without taking breaks or even going to the bathroom, often taking stimulants and energy drinks in order to push through.
When immigrants get sick they have few options. Many lack comprehensive health insurance because of their legal status, and even if they can get some kind of health care, they fear taking time off work will cost them their jobs. Additionally, the area lacks access to specialists and hospitals, Cheney said.
Immigration status is a major stressor for many of these farmworkers. As minorities living in a rural area, they are easily visible to police and immigration authorities. Many fear being racially profiled just driving down the road or even dropping their kids off at school, researchers found.
Additionally, these immigrants face feelings of loneliness and isolation because they’re away from their families and communities of origin.
Maria Pozar, a former farmworker who lives in the area and who helped with the research, said lack of health insurance is a major concern for the immigrant community there. She said people put off going to the doctor until an illness or pain becomes unbearable, often with fatal results. A local woman farmworker recently died of cancer because she didn’t seek help for her condition until it was too late, Pozar said.
“There are people who are sick and have to work to be able to buy medicines, or they have the flu and they put up with it, or a temperature and they put up with it because they can’t get medical help because they don’t have health insurance,” she said in Spanish. “They have to put up with it because there’s nothing else they can do. It’s very stressful.”
Pozar said Mexican and Central American governments should step in to help these immigrants, who are citizens of those countries. She said immigrants would be less fearful about accessing health insurance or services provided by their own governments.
Cheney, meanwhile, said addressing the inequities and stress facing immigrant farmworkers will require structural changes in civil institutions to root out racist practices and ideologies. She said Americans in general should also pay more attention to the struggles faced by the people who pick their food.
“When we eat our strawberries we don’t think that it could have been migrants in the Eastern Valley who are originally from Mexico who are picking those strawberries so they can meet a quota for the day so that they can bring food home and support their family and be able to survive,” she said. “We tend to be very disconnected from this kind of reality when the fact is we’re all very connected to it because we eat the food that is being harvested by these individuals.”