January 18, 2018 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

I wrote yesterday about two important papers on dehydration and kidney injury among immigrant farmworkers. The study from California involved 283 farmworkers with 94 percent coming from Mexico. The other study involved 192 farmworkers in Florida—65 percent were from Mexico, 16 percent from Guatemala, and 13 percent from Haiti. President Trump’s despicable comments about immigrants from Mexico, Central America and Haiti—many who work in agriculture—got me thinking about the challenge of conducting research with farmworkers.

I reached out to Dr. Antonio Tovar with the Farmworker Association of Florida. He’s part of the Emory University-based research team that is studying heat exposure among immigrant agricultural workers. The call it the Girasoles (Sunflower) study. Here’s some of what I learned in our exchanges.

Hostility for immigrant workers is nothing new, but President Trump’s election and policies create more uncertainty and fear in farmworker families. Undocumented workers and those with H2A visas are harder to reach and less willing to participate in studies—-especially studies about working conditions. On top of that, some workers can be dismissive about their health and safety. They anticipate being in the U.S. only temporarily.

Tovar described the impact to-date of their research. For example, Florida State Senator Victor M. Torres, Jr. used the results to develop and promote legislation to prevent work-related heat illness. Torres introduced his bill on January 17, 2018, which would require employers to provide drinking water, shade and heat-illness prevention training to farmworkers, construction and other outdoor workers.

In addition, the Farmworker Association of Florida has been using the Girasoles study to enhance safety training provided to agricultural workers in Florida and Georgia. Tovar notes that the research is also deepening the public health community’s understanding of kidney disease of unknown etiology. They have plans to recruit some of the participants for additional research on kidney function.

Because of Tovar’s deep understanding of farmworkers and their communities, he offered his perspective on the ongoing U.S. immigration debate. The guestworker program for the agriculture industry (H2A) is bound to expand. (In my view, not for the better if Rep. Bob Goodlatte gets his way.) Better labor protection are desperately needed for guestworkers.

The unauthorized farmworkers who have been laboring for years to support the U.S. agricultural industry deserve protection, too. They need protection from deportation and a path to earned legal status and citizenship. These steps are outlined in legislation introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Luiz Gutierrez (D-IL).

Upon introducing his bill, Gutierrez offered passionate remarks.

“Farm workers provide backbreaking labor that keeps our economy going and keeps our food production on American soil. We benefit greatly from their hard work and eat and drink the products, the milk, the fruits, the strawberries, and the sweat of their work every single day. …We benefit from them, but we do not have a legal way for them to come here or a way for them to get legal once they are here.

“It is as if we are saying that you can stoop over in our fields, but we are going to treat you as outsiders – never part of America’s society, never able to become citizens, never able to keep your families together under the protection of and in compliance with U.S. law.

“We wink and nod. We know that every time we have a nice glass of wine or a delicious apple or open up a yogurt, that immigrant hands touched that food, brought it to our grocery store and got it to our table.

“…This legislation says to farm workers that we value your contributions and see you as legitimate and our laws ought to reflect that.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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