A fruitful month: Beaufort greets migrant workers with food and health care

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A fruitful month: Beaufort greets migrant workers with food and health care

By ALEXIS GARROBO agarrobo@beaufortgazette.com 843-986-5539
Published Saturday, June 14, 2008 in The Beaufort Gazette  |  1281 Words  |  local_news

Sweat drips from workers' bodies and brows even as the sun sets behind the 12-foot chain-link, barbed wire fence that surrounds a Lands End migrant camp.
Workers retreat from tomato fields to about 10 migrant camps attached to various farms -- Sanders Farm, Six L's Farm and Capers...Sweat drips from workers' bodies and brows even as the sun sets behind the 12-foot chain-link, barbed wire fence that surrounds a Lands End migrant camp.
Workers retreat from tomato fields to about 10 migrant camps attached to various farms -- Sanders Farm, Six L's Farm and Capers Island Farm.
About 1,000 workers travel from Florida, Mexico, Honduras or Guatemala following the tomato season into Beaufort County. And as they arrive, volunteers largely organized through The Franciscan Center on St. Helena Island pack boxes of beans, rice, cookies and other food and flock to the migrant camps to provide during a period when many do not have food.
Food waits until the first paycheck arrives.
But the local social services, such as The Franciscan Center and the migrant health clinic, are grappling with the effects that recent illegal immigration legislation and negative perceptions toward Hispanics have had on the financial support the organizations receive.
Foreign migrant workers are required to have temporary or permanent government permission to work, according to state and federal laws. But there is no way to pin down whether all migrant workers are legal.
According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, a recent study shows 52 percent of farm workers are not citizens or legal residents, but another report maintains that the majority of them are legal. People who provide services to migrant workers tend to err on the legal side.
Despite the fact that migrants and illegal immigrants are not the same, local residents working with two migrant community outreach programs claim the policies aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration are having perceivable impacts on what they do.
Despite the fact that the migrant population's economic impact on the state ranks in the billions of dollars, according to the S.C. Chamber of Commerce Web site, two recent policies are mirroring the growing attention that illegal immigration is getting.
Gov. Mark Sanford signed into law June 4 the South Carolina Illegal Immigration Reform Act, which aggressively tries to curb illegal immigration by requiring employers to verify employees through a federal work authorization program, bans them from college scholarships and allows workers fired and replaced by an illegal immigrant to sue the employer.
In Beaufort County, Sheriff P.J. Tanner announced Monday that four local deputies will begin enforcing federal immigration laws after they receive training from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
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<strong>Perception is half the battle </strong>
Although many of the social services, such as the migrant health care clinic, provide service regardless of legal status, the perceptions and policies targeting illegal immigrants also mean some migrants who might not fully understand the system and new measures are more hesitant to seek out services fearing legal consequences.
Roland Gardner, Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services executive director, said he's noticed a decrease in patients seeking treatment coincided with anti-illegal immigration legislation.
Patients seeking OB-GYN services, which is one of the major services provided to migrant workers, have decreased both at the clinic and at Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health Services, said LaFrance Ferguson, the primary clinic physician. But center director Carolyn Davis said she could not determine if the decrease could be attributed to illegal immigration policies because the clinic does not inquire about the patients' legal status.
"Our focus is health care and public health," Davis said. "The migrant population can be hesitant to access service anyway because they aren't familiar with the system or area."
Without the community support, on which these social services rely heavily, services to the migrant community would be reduced.
<strong>Seasonal food outreach program feels a strain</strong>
The food donations given to migrant camps costs about $12,000, and the majority of that comes from community donations, said Sister Shelia Byrne, who helps organize the Franciscans' drive. She said without that money, and also annual box donations from Georgia-Pacific, the Franciscan Center would not be able to do what it does, and many workers would go hungry.
Sister Shelia said they were concerned people wouldn't be as supportive of the outreach effort because of all the negativity toward illegal immigration.
"(But we found) not everybody out there lumps Hispanics together; (that) was the best year as far as input," Sister Shelia said. She said workers in the local farms should not be considered illegal, but she did mention that in the past, some migrants left their jobs to stay in Beaufort in violation of their work permits.
"That won't happen now. It's too risky," she said.
<strong>A hand in the health care field</strong>
Spanish and English mingle in the waiting room at the evening migrant clinic at the Leroy E. Brown Medical Center as nurses figure out who needs to be treated.
Gardner said the federal and statewide policies on illegal immigration have affected the center financially. Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Health has operated the clinic since 1970, and most recently has gotten its funding through a $458,000 federal grant for providing health care to migrant workers through the National Association of Community Health Centers. Gardner said the amount has remained constant for the past five or six years while health care costs continue to rise.
The center opens after the workday Monday through Thursdays at 7 p.m.to treat migrant workers who would not otherwise be able to go to a health care center. The center remain open until everyone is treated, often as late as midnight or 1 a.m. The center offers dental, pre-natal, general practice, acute care, and X-ray services, Davis said. Half of the patients seen in the dental clinic have never been to a dentist before.
"These people are the poorest of the poor. We provide care for them even though on their hierarchy of needs food on the table comes before their health," she said. Davis said many of the patients they see wait until they come to Beaufort before receiving any type of health care.
<strong>Returning the favor</strong>
In the migrant camp, personal touches are visible from screen doorways: a curtain here or a quilt there. Water spurts into the grass from a washing machine that sits outside on the concrete slab. There are community bathrooms and kitchens, but no air conditioning. Young men sit on overturned plastic buckets outside the doors. They joke with friends or relax from the day. Music thumps out of one of the windows. A few kids scurry around the camp.
"My family started here," said Marlin Arana, a recent Beaufort High School graduate who said she plans to attend the University of South Carolina Beaufort to study education in the fall.
This year will be the fourth that she and her family have helped deliver boxes for the Franciscan Center.
Several of the volunteers were once migrants who have made better lives for themselves in Beaufort. Arana said the center was instrumental in her family settling in Beaufort, particularly Sister Shelia and Sister Stella Breen.
Arana said while her family and many others in the community help the migrant community, it is an unknown world to a large part of the local community, particularly her peers.