Six months after toxic smoke, health of immigrant workers still at risk

By Cynthia Buiza, Special to CALmatters

We are about to mark six months since last November’s wildfires left painful scars across California. As we look back on those awful days, we might prefer to forget the putrid smoke that briefly made our air the worst in the world.

But for thousands of workers forced to labor in fields or construction sites without masks while air quality maps reached alarming shades of purple and crimson, the long-term health consequences may just be beginning.

These workers, many of whom are immigrants, now face increased risk of heart problems and asthma. In fact, microscopic particles may now be lodged in their lung tissue.

The least we can do is to make sure every Californian is able to get the medical care they need, regardless of where they were born or what their immigration status is.

But long before the fires, harsh federal policies systematically excluded our undocumented neighbors, family members, and co-workers from health care. As a result, nine in 10 low-income undocumented Californians lack health insurance.

Senate Bill 29 by Sen. María Elena Durazo of Los Angeles and Assembly Bill 4 by Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Alameda could change this. Known as the “Health for all Adults” Act, these bills deserve the full support of the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom.

These proposals honor our most important shared values: equity and compassion.

In California, our strength is anchored in our ability to build alliances across race, region, and background. In fact, during the fires six months ago, we witnessed a beautiful outpouring of caring and solidarity.

Among thousands of examples last year: a taco truck owner donated hundreds of meals to survivors of the horrendously tragic Camp Fire, and a teaching assistant drove hours to bring protective masks to blueberry workers in the Central Valley.

Our state’s policies should reflect this spirit of unity, caring, and treating others as we would want to be treated.

Yet in contrast to California’s spirit of inclusion, the federal government has set up extra barriers to health care access which are as discriminatory as they are irrational. Congress cruelly shut undocumented immigrants out of health care reform, then failed to create a workable immigration process for millions of people who have been deeply rooted in our communities for decades.

We are heartened that Gov. Newsom has proposed expanding access to the MediCal program for undocumented people up to age 25. That’s a good step and we need to build on it this year so that all community members can thrive.

Undocumented Californians contribute profoundly to our social and economic vitality. Yet like so many of us in this age of economic inequality, many of them struggle to make ends meet.

All of us who call California home should be eligible to get the care we need. Healthy families are essential to healthy communities. And myriad policy arguments, from the value of cost effectiveness to the power of preventive care, back up this stance.

Even more importantly, it’s the right thing to do. No one should suffer or die from a treatable condition regardless of where they were born or how much money they make.

To be sure, we need to do much more to make quality health care affordable to everyone who lives in California, immigrants and people born in the U.S. alike. Removing exclusions to health care for undocumented Californians is one step on the road to an equitable and workable healthcare system.

The fires and their aftermath are a stark reminder that we need a new paradigm that gets to the root of our deepest problems and centers compassion, equality, and human rights for every person who calls California home.

 


Cynthia Buiza is executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, [email protected]. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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