Are Farmworkers & Immigrants Being Left Behind Amid Raging Southern California Wildfires?

Web ExclusiveDecember 11, 2017
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In California, authorities have warned residents to stay inside because of the dangerous air quality caused by smoke and carcinogenic ash from the fires. But some farms have stayed open, sparking concerns that farmworkers are laboring in hazardous conditions without proper equipment. Meanwhile, 200,000 people have been forced to evacuate, sparking fears in some immigrant communities about the potential risks of deportation at emergency shelters. For more on the rights of immigrants and workers during these historic wildfires, we speak with Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director for CAUSE—Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. We also speak with Democratic California state Assemblymember Monique Limón, who represents Santa Barbara and Ventura County.

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Video squareStoryDec 11, 2017Amid Worst Winter Wildfires in California History, Farmworkers Are Laboring in Hazardous Air
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation on wildfires raging through Southern California, raging towards the coastal cities on the weekend. The fires have scorched some 230,000 acres of land and forced nearly 200,000 people to evacuate. At least one woman has died so far. There are some injuries reported. The wildfires are already fifth largest on record in California and the largest ever recorded in December. Of the largest 20 wildfires, the last five have occurred since September. Climate experts say the intensity of the winter blazes is linked to climate change.

Authorities have warned residents to stay inside, those that haven’t evacuated, because of the dangerous air quality caused by smoke and carcinogenic ash from the fires. But a number of farms have stayed open, sparking concerns farmworkers are laboring in hazardous conditions without proper equipment. Last week, volunteers handing out free protective masks to farmworkers say they were kicked off some farms, despite the fact the pickers were asking for the safety equipment.

Well, for more, we are continuing with our two guests in Southern California. Via Democracy Now! video stream, Lucas Zucker joins us from Ventura. He was evacuated last week due to the fires. Zucker is policy and communications director for CAUSE, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. He helped distribute respirator masks to farmworkers who continued working despite hazardous air quality conditions. And by phone, we’re joined by Democratic California State Assemblymember Monique Limón, who represents Santa Barbara and Ventura County.

Assemblymember Monique Limón, can you first talk about the situation where you are, in Santa Barbara? What is happening?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MONIQUE LIMÓN: So, the situation in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties is actually quite horrific. We’ve had over 230,000 acres burn, approximately 270 square miles. So that’s just bigger than the area of Boston, for example. And, you know, we’re facing a fire that’s still burning, only at 10 percent containment. We’re facing about 95,000 people that, through this week-long fire, have had to evacuate. We’re facing 790 structures that have been damaged or destroyed. So there is a number of issues that our community is facing, including the fact that these fires have caused particularly challenging kind of air quality concerns for us. Our air in this particular area has been deemed bad to hazardous in certain parts of this county because of the fires.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you been forced to evacuate, Assemblymember?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MONIQUE LIMÓN: So, I have not been forced to evacuate, myself. I do have family members who have been forced to evacuate. But I have been in this district. I represent nearly half a million people in this particular part of the state of California. And I have now gone to some of these sites where we’ve lost hundreds of homes, sites that have—you know, that have been threatened. And it’s something that I’ve been working on every single day, in terms of making sure that people have resources and know the information.

So this is something that—as someone who grew up in this area, born and raised in this area, our area has not seen a fire of this magnitude. We’re very accustomed to fires. Regrettably, we have them, you know, every year. But this is something else. This is a much bigger magnitude than we’ve ever experienced in this area.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Bill McKibben tweeted that of the 20 worst fires in California, the last five have been since September, this the only one—and this the fifth largest at this point in California history, and the only one in December, scientists linking the intensity of these fires to climate change. The significance, state Assemblymember Monique Limón, of the president of the United States saying that climate change is a hoax, and what that means for California?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MONIQUE LIMÓN: Well, I’ll tell you this. For I think folks not just in California, but in other parts of our country, when you see, you know, six to seven years of drought, you know, very high temperatures, not enough rain, you do understand that our contribution to what we’re doing to our climate, and, you know, the human contribution, is definitely having an impact. You know, this is real. This is absolutely real. And again, the conditions, because of the lack of rain, because of the drought, that this particular area has been experiencing are conditions that are absolutely impacting the area. Our firefighters and public safety officers repeat to us, at every single point where they’re giving our community information, that the conditions of this particular area are contributing to a much more intense fire. And that is real.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about what’s happening to the farmworkers. And let’s bring in Lucas Zucker, who himself was evacuated. He is with CAUSE, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy. Can you talk about what you’re doing right now? You, yourself, already evacuated. But in trying to get respirators to farmworkers, is it true, Lucas Zucker, who are being required to continue to work, even despite the air quality? Talk about what you found.

LUCAS ZUCKER: That’s right. So, despite the extremely dangerous air quality right now from the wildfire smoke, there are thousands of farmworkers still out working in the fields of our region without N95 protective masks. Public health officials recommend people wear these masks even if they’re just going outside to walk to the store, let alone do heavy physical labor for long days in the fields. And farmworkers are really faced with this horrible choice between giving up the income that they desperately need at a time like this and endangering their health and safety at work without the proper protective equipment.

And so we’ve had dozens of volunteers going out every morning to the fields and giving out masks to farmworkers. We’ve also been mobilizing in our community to push Cal/OSHA to take action and really protect the health and safety of these workers.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what Cal/OSHA is, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in California.

LUCAS ZUCKER: So, Cal/OSHA is the agency tasked with protecting the health and safety of all workers in California. But they had actually closed down their regional offices after the fires broke out. And so, we had this really massive public outcry against that. We had calls flooding in the Cal/OSHA offices, and our state legislators really working to get them open. It’s just incredible to have thousands of farmworkers out in the fields in dangerous conditions working, while Cal/OSHA, the agency tasked with protecting them, is not working.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what farms have you gone to where—have you been prevented from handing these out?

LUCAS ZUCKER: We did have some hostile confrontations. You know, some farms, we were escorted out, you know, with a truck driving behind us and, you know, threats to call the sheriff. The majority of farms, we have been able to get masks out. But there’s been some tense moments with some of our volunteers who are especially, you know, high school students as young as 15.

AMY GOODMAN: Who are giving out the masks?

LUCAS ZUCKER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happens if a farmworker says that they do not want to work now, that they’re afraid?

LUCAS ZUCKER: So, farmworkers do have the right, especially if there’s two or more, to ask for the day off in these conditions. But, ultimately, what we’ve found is, you know, folks have been going to work. You know, they’re in a really tough, vulnerable situation. And a lot of farmworkers are afraid of their income, their job, their immigration status. And so they’re faced with a very difficult choice here.

AMY GOODMAN: Are the—

LUCAS ZUCKER: And not—often not much choice at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Are the emergency warnings in Ventura—are they also written in Spanish? Does the county write them in English and Spanish?

LUCAS ZUCKER: No, the vast majority of emergency information has been only easily accessible in English for evacuation orders, fire perimeter safety notices, road closures, emergency shelters. Actually, the main clearing house of information, ReadyVenturaCounty.org, has been in English with—if you scroll way to the bottom, there’s a little tab that you can use Google Translate, which, as folks who are bilingual know, this is basically translation done by bot. It’s not very helpful. We asked our Office of Emergency Services to do translations. They said they don’t have time to. They just can’t make live regular updates in Spanish the way they make regular updates in English, and Google Translate is the best that we’re going to get. So they put a line, kind of an awkwardly translated line, at the top of the page, kind of explaining to people how to use Google Translate.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, farmworkers in Washington state demanded justice and safe working conditions after one of their colleagues fell ill and died after picking berries in a field near the Canadian border. The 28-year-old father of three, Honesto Silva Ibarra, was working for Sarbanand Farms this summer amidst scorching temperatures and smoke from nearby wildfires, when he began complaining of intense headaches. Silva’s colleagues say supervisors denied his requests for medical attention, ordered him to keep working or be fired. Silva later collapsed while seeking help and was rushed to a hospital in Seattle, where he died in August. At least 70 workers were fired for insubordination when they organized a one-day work stoppage to protest Silva’s death and dangerous conditions in the fields. Do you know about this, Lucas Zucker? And do farmworkers along the coast? Are they aware of these situations?

LUCAS ZUCKER: That’s right. Incidents like that are definitely forefront on our minds right now, as we’re working to ensure the health and safety of farmworkers. I think that most farmworkers out in the fields now probably haven’t heard of these incidents and may not know the severity of the risks they’re facing. And that’s why we’re getting out there to talk to them.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about The Avenue in Ventura, just what The Avenue is?

LUCAS ZUCKER: That’s right. The Avenue is Ventura Avenue. It’s kind of the corridor along Ventura’s Westside. It’s kind of a densely populated, narrow community surrounded by steep hillsides on both sides. The wall of fire kind of climbed down and just barely was stopped before hitting apartment buildings. This is a community of about 13,000 people, about 70 percent Latino. It was a community under mandatory evacuation orders for five days, with dangerous air quality, you know, just had clean, safe drinking water restored. But the vast majority of residents were actually still living there, either never left or, you know, returned home after leaving immediately that first night. So we’ve been working to get out, get out air masks, as well, there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Assemblymember Monique Limón, as you listen to this description of what’s happening on the farms in Southern California amidst these horrific wildfires, these historic fires in California, can you talk about what you’re doing, first around the farmworkers’ safety and then in general? Are you talking to the farmworkers, talking to the growers? What agreements are being made now?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MONIQUE LIMÓN: Right. So, actually, we played a role in contacting Cal/OSHA and making sure that Cal/OSHA was available, but not only available to those in the community to ask, you know, in terms of questions about safety and working conditions, but that they were in a position to also make sure to properly inform and advise those particular farms. And so, Cal/OSHA, the agriculture commissioner, as well as the Growers Association, the berries association, were all contacted by our office, in terms of saying, “It’s really important for us to make sure that those on the ground have the correct information about worker safety.” And, you know, there was—I think on the first day, there were some farms that actually let their farmworkers go; the second day, were still working on making sure that people have, you know, masks, the appropriate N95 mask, if they are outside working.

I think one of the things that Lucas alluded to is the challenge of, you know, the need for income. And this is going to be a continued kind of conversation about what happens when your need for income is such that you are now in a position to really not feel like you have an option, even though the law says you have an option. And that’s particularly difficult. So, on that front, I think that there’s been multiple legislators who have had this conversation. I know that, you know, when the locals kind of got a hold of this, there was a lot of questions being asked. So, among the multitude of complications and challenges and emergencies that we’re having in this particular area related to the fire, that is definitely, you know, something that’s very important to us.

You know, on the bigger issue, in terms of the fire and what our office is doing, as someone who represents this particular area in the state, our office continues to try to get this information to folks. And I will say to anyone who goes to any of the information that I released, you know, we’ve done our best—as someone, you know, who was born in this country but who’s been bilingual my entire life—to get information out in both Spanish and English, which are the two languages, predominantly—not the only ones, but predominantly—spoken in this particular area of California. And so, we’ve been, you know, making sure we’ve been talking to folks. You know, there’s been times where we’ve been at a press conference and I’ve been the only one to say something in Spanish. But it’s an issue we’re not—we’re not dropping this issue, in terms of getting information out to the community in ways that they can actually interpret and make the best decisions in terms of what they’re going to do.

So this is something that, again, this fire has presented a number of challenges, emergencies, imperfections, things that have not gone as we would have liked them to go—right?—not the script that we would have like them. But we don’t drop them. We address them. And we make sure that as we move forward in the Legislature, we are considering, you know, all of these things and making sure that it’s—you know, I think our governor said it well, in this week, in terms of when he came out to visit the area. He said that this is really the new norm for California. So, if this is the new norm for California, to have these wildfires, then we must make sure that that norm changes, for our entire community.

AMY GOODMAN: What about people who are concerned about evacuating because they’re concerned they could—if they went into a shelter, they would be picked up by ICE, or they would be picked up by authorities? When we were in Santa Rosa, in the fires in Northern California, people were afraid to leave their homes. Some people were fleeing to the ocean. What are you telling people? And what is ICE doing right now around these issues?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MONIQUE LIMÓN: So, this is actually something that’s come up in the community already. And so, we’re working with the Red Cross, with the volunteers, with everyone involved, to make sure that they get the right information out, and in saying—you know, and that information is that anyone can come to the shelter. You don’t need to provide a driver’s license or proof of anything else. And this is something that actually impacts all communities. There’s people who left their home without being able to grab their, you know, belongings and information. So it’s really important for us to make sure that they know that the evacuation center is a safe place for them.

We’ve also seen that the Mexican Consulate has been visiting all of these evacuation centers, with the hope to provide information, resources, but also bilingual translation, in cases that’s needed. I know that I’ve run into officials working in the Mexican Consulate. And while the Mexican Consulate is here to, you know, help Mexican nationals, that has not been the case. They have helped anyone who has needed Spanish and bilingual translation, citizens included. And so I think that that’s something that’s really important.

But it is something that we have heard. It’s something that we know is a real threat, in terms of a fear that people have in the community and reasons why they may not want to go to a shelter. So we’re really trying to ensure that that information gets out to our community as a whole.

AMY GOODMAN: So, in these Red Cross shelters and other shelters, they are not allowed to ask for ID? Could you continue with that in English?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MONIQUE LIMÓN: OK. In these—no, in these evacuation centers, they do not ask for IDs. And so, this is information we have verified, that they do not ask for this information, and this is not information that they need. They just need kind of a name and last name to know who’s there. They need a count, of course. But they don’t need to have that information to be able to access emergency shelters.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about this issue that Lucas Zucker has raised of the lack of Spanish translation of the warnings and the advisories being translated into Spanish on the government websites? What is being done right now to fix that?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MONIQUE LIMÓN: Right. So, you know, the app was immediately like get something up there in Spanish and English. We also have a statewide system. It’s called the Nixle text system, which does give people the ability to opt into a Spanish text message. And so, you know, the conversation continues. I know that I sat in a meeting yesterday for Santa Barbara County, and the congressmember and I brought forward this same particular issue: What’s being done to get this information in Spanish? I think we’re going to have to have continued conversations about what we do long term. In the immediate, because the need is such, I have to tell you that anyone who speaks Spanish, including myself, is doing everything possible to get that information in Spanish to folks. That’s the immediate, short-term like I need to get someone information. But the long term is, we’re going to have to really set some state policies and standards about how we get information out, particularly in areas where we know we have, you know, a large number of people who speak a different language. And that’s going to be very important.

And it’s important for the whole community. Safety is an important thing. For everyone to be informed about what the practice, the evacuation plan is, how they should think about these issues, it really makes the community as a whole. I mean, we saw this in the evacuation process in the city of Ventura. You had so many people evacuating at that same time. So, to make sure that everyone has that information is key. It’s key to the safety of the whole entire community.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Assemblymember Monique Limón, how has Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry distributor, responded to the wildfires and to the farmworkers who work in the area?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER MONIQUE LIMÓN: So, they—you know, once they were informed, they immediately, actually, put out a statement about, you know, the whole condition. And they—you know, in their statement, they acknowledged that they were going to be taking next steps in terms of those folks, I think, of working with the farmworkers and safety. Like I said, initially, that first day when it came out, they let folks go home, once kind of the situation was elevated to a lot of different agencies, and folks—folks went home. And so, it is our hope that Driscoll’s and, you know, other berry growers will continue to really see what we do in the long term, when we have folks who, you know, are very much impacted by what is happening when their work is outside.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Assemblymember Monique Limón of Santa Barbara and Ventura, and Lucas Zucker, with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE. You can also go to our website to hear our conversation in Spanish about this dire situation, at this point the fifth-worst wildfire in California’s history. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

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Amid Worst Winter Wildfires in California History, Farmworkers Are Laboring in Hazardous Air

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