Other Opinions

Manuel Cunha Jr.: If farms are to thrive, immigrant labor must have good health care

FresnoJune 18, 2014 

I've spent my life in the Valley, and I know firsthand how the fruits and vegetables we grow and the grain we harvest fuels our state and nation.

I grew up in Vacaville and have farmed in the Fresno area for decades, growing citrus outside Sanger and representing farmers as president of the Nisei Farmers League. I know that agriculture workers are an invaluable asset to our economy, not just for California but also for the entire United States.

Every time an American family sits down to dinner or fills a shopping cart at a grocery store, you have farmers, growers and farmworkers to thank. For me, agriculture is deeply rewarding. I put a seed in the ground, I see it grow and I harvest squash or tomatoes. I graft trees, and I can see the variety of fruit they're producing.

But the industry — agriculture — that I'm proud to be a part of would simply crumble without immigrant labor. Immigrants are the backbone of our industry; without healthy farmworkers, our farms would be nothing.

As a grower, I know that the success of our farms is contingent on the workers just as much as the farmers. I am proud that we have the safest food in the world and I know that the reason we do is because our industry, our farmers, our farmworkers, ensure that.

In order for farms to thrive, their workers have to be healthy. I know from my vantage point as a grower and as a board member of our local community health clinic that preventive and primary care is critical to achieving this outcome. Workers and their families provide food for our entire country and are part of our community. It makes all the sense in the world — pragmatically, economically and morally — to provide them the health care that will keep them and their families healthy.

Despite the $2.7 billion in taxes that undocumented Californians pay to our state and federal government every year and the hundreds of billions of dollars of economic activity they generate, undocumented immigrants, including 400,000 agricultural workers in California, were blocked from health coverage under health care reform. Right now, immigrants without papers don't qualify for Medi-Cal or Covered California. For many, private health insurance is out of reach financially, and every illness or injury is a source of ongoing anxiety and potential bankruptcy.

Many of the workers on our farms have lived here for years, even decades. They've put down roots in our communities, joined churches and community groups, raised their children to excel in school and pursue their dreams. They call California their home, and they are grateful to live here and to be part of the American dream. Immigrant workers pay taxes, they contribute, and they are a critical part of our California. For us to turn our backs on them would be morally wrong and economically short-sighted.

Too many immigrant workers and their families rely on emergency rooms for dire medical situations, otherwise avoiding costly medical care and trying to scrape by with homeopathic or home remedies.

Basic primary care and preventive health can be the difference between sickness and health for our workers; a basic check-up saves us all money and keeps families healthy. A regular visit to the doctor can help avoid the onset of diseases like Type 2 diabetes that can be avoided or managing illnesses like cancer that can often be caught early through primary care.

We need to do right by the workers in our communities and the families in our neighborhoods, expanding access to health care and working together to find real solutions here in Fresno, Sacramento and across the state.

Undocumented immigrants work in a wide range of sectors, contributing in countless ways, and they deserve health coverage just like any other Californian. We are stronger and healthier together, when everyone is covered and able to participate in our health care system.


Manuel Cunha Jr. is president of the Nisei Farmers League.

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