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Health Care and the Stalling of Immigration Reform

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Written by Seth Holmes

As immigration reform stalls and threatens to collapse in the House of Representatives, health care has become a key point of contention. Some Congress people have said they will not support immigration reform unless newly legalized immigrants are not eligible to receive health care for approximately 15 years. Others argue that this is an unfair requirement for immigrants who are paying taxes throughout the process of changing their documentation status.

I recently conducted field research for a year and a half living in labor camps, picking fruit, migrating from farm to farm and crossing the U.S.-Mexico border with undocumented Mexican migrant farm workers. Some politicians and media outlets depict migrants as "criminals" or "illegal aliens," who are "draining our economy" and therefore do not deserve benefits including health care. Quite the contrary, I found undocumented Mexican immigrants to be law-abiding, hardworking people who are anything but burdens on the American economy. In fact, many farm workers work so hard to provide us with healthy, fresh food that their own bodies become sick or injured.

On a berry farm in Washington State, I met Abelino, an indigenous Triqui man from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. A father of four, Abelino explained that there was no work in his home village and he had no choice but to migrate to the U.S. to help his family survive. I was picking berries beside Abelino one day when he, working as fast as he could to meet the day's minimum weight of berries, pivoted from one row to another and experienced sudden, severe knee pain. His repetitive workload -- harvesting berries 7 days a week crouched over -- led to this painful injury. Over the course of several months, Abelino received much-needed physical therapy and steroid injections that helped ease the pain, though his injury ultimately could not be fully healed and he eventually had to leave the farm in search of less physically strenuous work.

Too often, farm workers like Abelino are hurt as they work to provide fresh food for the rest of, sacrificing their own health for ours. What's more, they rarely seek medical care in the U.S. because they can't afford to miss work. These hardworking people deserve health care.

Recent debates over immigration reform have been abstract, and often fail to consider the real life experiences of individual immigrants themselves. In order to understand this hotly debated topic, I decided to spend time conducting what anthropologists call participant-observation with migrant farm workers as well as interviewing border patrol agents, health professionals and farm owners.

During this field research, we lived in labor camps and picked berries in Washington, stayed in a slum apartment and pruned vineyards in California, and harvested and planted corn while living in a village in southern Mexico. We also crossed the border from Mexico into Arizona together -- and spent time in border patrol jail before my companions were deported and I was released with a fine. In Washington State, the farm workers toiled every day, rain or shine, from before dawn until that day's field was cleared. They worked seven days a week, bent over, picking berries and pruning grape vines. I was impressed repeatedly by how hard they worked to provide food for the American public.

But this work carries a physical toll. Even though I worked in the fields only one or two days a week, I experienced stress as well as back, hip, and knee pain for days after. I watched my farmworker companions suffer these pains, as well as give premature birth, develop knee and back injuries, suffer extreme stress, and experience pesticide poisoning,. I watched these same farm workers avoid medical care whenever possible, continuing to work long days in order to care for their families and provide the American public with fresh food.

We reap enormous benefit from the work of immigrant farm workers. They labor under difficult and dangerous circumstances, harming their own bodies in order to provide us with healthy food. These human beings deserve immigration reform and they deserve health care. It is time to move past political posturing to do what is right for the people who work hard to feed us.

Seth Holmes is Martin Sisters Assistant Professor of Public Health and Medical Anthropology at UC Berkeley and author of Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (2013).