healthcare problems facing this nation is that of migrant workers, primarily those from Mexico, who work both legally and illegally on this side of the border. While other immigrant populations are also underinsured and under-treated --most notably Asians -- the Hispanic problem is by the far the most significant because of the shear numbers and the structural poverty which create stagnant population pools too large to ignore.
By allowing this problem to continue, we face the more direct health threat of the Mexican migrant worker population becoming a breeding ground for infectious diseases that can spread quickly into the general population. While humanitarian reasons alone should call for our involvement in solving this problem, we should be aware that the problem is an economic one as well. The Mexican workers, especially since the passage of NAFTA, have become an intergral part of the U.S. workforce in that they are performing low paying work that simply would not get done if farmers were totally dependent on U.S. workers. In addition, medical resources are being used up to meet the crisis, but not in an especially efficient manner.
While it is a temptation to dismiss this problem as a Mexican one and leave solutions up to the Mexican government, we must recognize that the Mexican government is not going to respond to this crisis, as they simply don't have the resources to deal with medical issues within their own borders, let alone those occurring in what they view as the wealthy United States.
The problem is especially acute in Texas along the border towns this side of the Rio Grande and in California where much of that state's economy has always been dependent on crops harvested by migrant workers. According to one health official working along the Rio Grande,
There really are massive problems down here, mainly because the area is very economically disadvantaged...There is a lot of disease, but the average income in the Rio Grande Valley is half that of the rest of the United States whereas the health costs are the same. So we've got half the money to pay for the same thing that everybody else does." (Pinkerton)
The rates of illness and death from disease is significnatly high for the migrant worker population. In the lower Rio Grande Valley and all along the Texas-Mexico border, women are dying at twice the national rate of cervical cancer, a disease that is quite treatable if detected early enough. Tuberculosis and liver disease rates are twice as high along the border as in the remainder of the state. (Pinkerton)
The situation in California is just as grevious. A highly comprehensive study done in California's Central Valley with 971 participants (Stanley 2001), indicates that only 11.4% of those surveyed had health insurance, and that the healthcare rights of migrant workers were "routinely violated." Other findings from the study showed that nearly 18% of migrant farm workers have at least two of three high risk factors for heart disease. These are high serum cholesterol, high blood pressure, and especially excessive body weight, as 81% of males and 76% of females in the study were shown to be dangerously overweight. Anemia was significantly greater among this population than the United States average. More than 33% of males and nearly 40% of females had at least one untreated tooth that was in a state of decay. This correlates with the fact that over 50% of males and 44% of females said they had never been to a dentist. Less than half (48%) said they had even been to a doctor's office during the past two years.
The lifestyle of the workers doesn't help matters either. "Farm workers tend to eat a lot of fast food, loaded with fat and sugar, which puts them at a greater risk of obesity and high cholesterol, and in turn ups their chances of getting chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure."(Lanzendorfer)
The survey also showed that workers were unaware of what rights they have under California law. Only about 30% knew about mandatory California Workers Compensation, which covers those who are injured while working or as a result of working. Even if workers do know about this law, they are hesitant to take off for sick days, as the seasonal nature of the work means they cannot afford to be out even for a few days without compromising their earning capacity.