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California Wildfires Could Hurt Area's Immigrants Most

Firefighters at work near Oroville, Calif. (Noah Berger / AP)

While the Napa and Sonoma areas of Northern California are known for their vineyards, less well known is how heavily they rely on immigrant labor: Immigrants working in the vineyards, hotels, restaurants and wineries make up a substantial proportion of the regions’ population.

Mic continues:

According to Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, Napa County had some 33,000 immigrants in 2015, which made up about 23% of the county’s population. “I don’t think most people realize that, like the rest of California, [Napa County] has a large immigrant population,” Capps told Mic on Tuesday…

About three-quarters of the county’s agricultural workers and a third of hospitality workers are immigrants, Capps said. As the wildfires moving across Northern California destroy vineyards and farms, they’re also destroying jobs. “That loss of jobs is going to hit the immigrant labor force pretty hard,” Capps said.

Capps also pointed out that “Housing is already very scarce and expensive, and housing’s already been a problem for the immigrant population in Napa County for some time.” This only adds to the concern that immigrants living in Napa County may have to relocate to the less expensive Central Valley, increasing the distance between their homes and workplaces.

Another concern is that one-third of the immigrant population is estimated to be undocumented, according to a spokesperson for the Migration Policy Institute. Undocumented immigrants are less likely to take advantage of services available to them, and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has recently threatened to step up raids in California.

A 2015 report in The Atlantic showed that natural disasters tend to have a disproportionately negative effect on vulnerable populations:

Such problems extend beyond New Orleans. After Hurricane Sandy swept up the east coast, officials estimated that recovery efforts would take about two years. Almost three years later, the internal displacement report finds that 39,000 people in affected areas—which range from the Appalachians to New England—were still in need of permanent housing or assistance with housing…

The problems, though, aren’t just the inconvenience, stress, and uncertainty that come with displacement. It’s also the economic toll. For some, it’s the cost of paying rent while also paying the mortgage on an uninhabitable property. For others, it’s the burden of paying out of pocket for essentials—like a bed, or car—while waiting for reimbursement from aid funds. Meanwhile, the cost of fortifying a property so that the next storm, flood, or instance of high winds doesn’t do the same amount of damage, can be prohibitively high.

Elizabeth Ferris, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a 2015 blog post:

Those who are poor and marginalized often suffer disproportionately from the effects of disasters, in part because they tend to live on marginal land and their houses are more weakly constructed. They are also less likely to own their homes, which means that it is less likely they are eligible for assistance to rebuild.

Also deeply affected by the wildfires are female inmates fighting the fires. One of them, Sandra Welsh, told NBC News, “We are the ones that do the line. We are the ones that carry the hose out. We’re the line of defense.”

NBC News continues:

Gayle McLaughlin, the former mayor of Richmond, Calif., and a candidate for lieutenant governor in the state, said she does support the fire programs.

“But they must be paid fairly for each day of work – and $1 an hour is not fair pay,” she wrote in September on her campaign website. “No matter how you may want to dress it up, if you have people working for nothing or almost nothing, you’ve got slave labor, and it is not acceptable.”

La’Sonya Edwards, another inmate firefighter, told The New York Times that ‘‘The pay is ridiculous. There are some days we are worn down to the core. And this isn’t that different from slave conditions. We need to get paid more for what we do.’’

Firefighters like Welsh are paid $2 a day.

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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