For undocumented migrants, wildfires bring additional worries

Fund helps undocumented immigrants who lost homes and work and developed health conditions due to California wildfires.

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    Oxnard, California - Last month's Woolsey Fire in southern California wasn't the first time Jacob* and his family witnessed the devastation a blaze can bring. They survived the Thomas Fire last December. And other smaller fires before that. 

    So when the smoke began to rise from Ventura County, they knew what kind of trouble was on its way.

    The Woolsey Fire, like many of those that have ravaged California, destroyed houses, land and crops. It also destroyed the livelihood for hundreds of undocumented individuals, including Jacob, who work in the fields in and around the area.

    Jacob and his wife pick strawberries in Ventura County. 

    Although it's hard physical work, it gives them the possibility to offer their six children a good life.

    But the wildfire smoke brought chemicals to the agricultural area, destroying the harvest Jacob and his family depend on for their livelihood.

    "Due to the wildfires, there's less work because many fruits went bad," Jacob told Al Jazeera.

    "This is difficult for us out in the field. The paychecks get a lot smaller which makes us feel cramped up. The bills don't wait - the rent, the telephone, the doctor." 

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    Jacob and his family don't have much in their savings. They also don't have a federal fund such as FEMA or disaster unemployment benefits to turn to like other victims of the fires do.

    Instead, they must rely on the generosity of others, including a new fund that was specifically created to help undocumented individuals affected by the wildfires.

    Most vulnerable are the hardest hit

    The fund, called the Undocufund, was born out of the devastation caused by the December 2017 Thomas Fire and has since continued to help those affected by the Woolsey and Hill Fires last month.

    Nayra Pacheco, Undocufund coordinator at the organisation MICOP (Mixteco/Indigina Community Organizing Project) based in the city of Oxnard, told Al Jazeera that at the time of the Thomas Fire and the following mudslides, they realised that many undocumented people didn't receive the help others were getting.

    "Agencies were putting out calls for relief aid, services for help and support, and a lot of that wasn't put out in Spanish, let alone in Mixteco, a native language in Mexico spoken by many farm workers," she said. "For example, advice to boil the water because of health risks was put out only in English."

    Together with other community organisations, MICOP started to register people affected while raising funds. By June 2018 - more than six months after the fire began - the Undocufund had registered around 1,800 undocumented families who needed help.

    The fund has been able to provide about $1,500 to families who applied. 

    There are, however, still 400 families. on the waiting list for help from the last fires, and more than 100 more, including Jacob's, have applied for aid due to this year's blazes.

    An undocumented woman wears a bandana she used to cover her nose and mouth to avoid inhaling smoke while working in the fields during the Hill Fire [Philip Cheung for The Washington Post/Getty Images] 

    In the office where Pacheco works, stacks of applications lined her desk. Behind her, a poster read, "Rise up as one." In the back of the room, a woman answered questions in Spanish from an affected family. 

    The vast majority of the applications are from those in Ventura County who have found themselves without work.

    It's difficult to determine the exact number of undocumented individuals in this area, but research by PEW research centre found that there were about 50,000 undocumented migrants in the Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura region in 2014. The Undocufund estimates that the number of undocumented immigrants living and working in the fire-hit areas Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties is closer to 126,000.

    Although the Undocufund already raised almost $1.5m, they don't have the funds yet to help everyone in dire need.

    Others who have applied complain of health concerns. Some workers have been pressured to keep working while smoke filled the fields. 

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    Organisers also witnessed people working in the fields without any respiratory protection during the Woolsey Fire.

    "Those of us who are most vulnerable, are hit the hardest," Pacheco told Al Jazeera. "We hear stories of people developing health problems like asthma. They will get respiratory problems, which will last for a long time."

    Fear of deportation

    Applying for aid creates a lot of anxiety within immigrant communities due to the fear of undocumented individuals being handed over to federal authorities.

    Miguel* sat in the Undocufund office with his wife, Maria*, and their four children last month.

    "We came to the United States 11 years ago to work in the fields," Miguel told Al Jazeera. "We saw friends and family doing this and they started to make a living. In Oaxaca, there is not a lot of work," he added, referring to the Mexican state he fled more than a decade ago. 

    Last year, the family received some aid from the Undocufund, but the fires also brought on health conditions that have persisted for months.

    Maria, who had dark bags under her eyes, had developed strong headaches.

    The Woolsey Fire destroyed more than 49,000 hectares [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]

    According to Pacheco, some of the families who contacted Undocufund continued working in the fields while they were full of smoke, developing more severe conditions like asthma.

    The family said they have nowhere else to turn out of fear of being arrested and forced to leave the country.

    "There is always that fear of deportation," Miguel told Al Jazeera. "We have heard about families who got deported. So now we stay inside a lot. We are always afraid: What will ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) do now? Will they come knocking on doors?"

    The new reality

    After the family left the office, Pacheco sat down again at an old plastic camping table they use as a desk and started to discuss with one of the volunteers how to work through the stacks of applications. 

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    Pacheco is undocumented herself. She was brought to the US when she was six years old and is currently protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, which President Donald Trump has moved to end. 

    "I think it's important for undocumented people who can't speak up that somebody takes a risk," Pacheco told Al Jazeera.

    "We see a lot of problems come together in a climate that is very hostile for immigrants," Pacheco told Al Jazeera. "I hear stories of people whose husband, for instance, was just deported and now suffer from the fires. These fires don't happen in a vacuum, but in a community already struggling."

    A burned lemon tree is seen in the backyard of house in Thousand Oaks, California [Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images]

    For Pacheco, the wildfires are an intersection of everything that is currently happening in the US: the lack of action towards climate justice, the lack of labour rights or paid sick leave, the crackdown on immigration, racism towards people of different backgrounds.

    "Because these huge wildfires are becoming an annual event, we have to realize that this is the new reality," Pacheco said. "For the long term, we will need to have a conversation with the state what this will mean for the immigrant labour community."

    *Name has been changed to protect the individual's identity

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News