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El Paso area farmworkers struggle to get vaccinated

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After months of waiting for an appointment and a 45 minute bus ride, Verenice De La Mora received the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine at the Border Agricultural Workers Center on March 12. 

“I was afraid, and I was very nervous, but I decided that it was best for my children and me (if I get the vaccine),” said De La Mora, a farmworker and single mother. 

Increasingly, El Paso-area immigrant farmworkers like De La Mora are finding ways to access the COVID-19 vaccine amid a complicated political climate and logistical barriers.

De La Mora was born in the United States but raised in Torreon, Mexico. She came back to the United States in 2013 to work as a farmworker for the New Mexico season of the California chile pepper, and continued with this work until the pandemic hit. 

“A year and a half ago, I had a heart attack. I have diabetes and arthritis in my fingers now because of my years of work in the fields, so I decided not to work anymore when the pandemic started,” De La Mora said. “I was afraid of bringing the virus to my children, and we are alone here. If I test positive, the government could take my children away, and I thought that it was not worth it.” 

Verenice De La Mora with her three children. De La Mora has been a farmworker since 2013. (Maria Ramos Pacheco/El Paso Matters)

As of April 1, De La Mora and 62 other El Paso area farmworkers have received vaccines through the Border Agricultural Workers Center, a non-profit in operation since 1995 that provides housing and services to migrant farmworkers and their families.

Usually, farmworkers gather Downtown while waiting for contractors to pick them up and take them to the fields in Far West Texas and Southern New Mexico. 

This effort to allocate vaccines to farmworkers and bring them Downtown was led by Carlos Marentes, executive director of the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project. 

Even before the pandemic, the working conditions for farmworkers were questionable. When the pandemic hit, the risks were greater for them, according to Marentes. 

The majority of those working as farmworkers are undocumented immigrants; many seek shelter and help at Border Agricultural Workers Center, Marentes said. Hispanic people have disproportionately been impacted by COVID-19 in El Paso and across Texas.

“By law, all (farm) working places should have at least one women’s bathroom (if women are working in that field), a hand-washing station and water stations for the farmworkers. Very often the farms fail to follow these rules,” Marentes said. “With the pandemic, things got worse. Workers were packed in vans, no face masks were available for them and they never stopped working.”

Agricultural workers are classified as essential workers under state and local orders but were never prioritized to receive the vaccine. 

According to David Lakey, vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas System, the state did not create any plan to outreach and allocate vaccines for farmworkers, indicating that those were decisions to be made at the local level instead. 

But the city of El Paso also did not create a specific plan for immunizing farmworkers. 

“To our knowledge, the state has not provided vaccine allocation specifically for farmworkers; however, if a farmworker qualifies under the existing categories, they are able to register and receive the vaccine,” El Paso city spokesperson Laura Cruz Acosta said.

The challenges for farmworkers to get vaccinated

As of March 29, all Texans 16 and up are eligible to get the vaccine, and almost 160,000 El Pasoans have been fully vaccinated as of Tuesday. Despite that, farmworkers still face several challenges to access the vaccine. 

Miguel Angel Nava, a migrant farmworker from Ciudad Juárez, uses a computer at the Border Agriculture Workers Center in Downtown El Paso before heading to the fields for work in April 2020. (Photo courtesy of Carlos Marentes)

“(Vaccination challenges include) logistical barriers, child care, transportation, the long lines, and the limited hours of operation of vaccine sites,” said Nora Hernandez, manager of the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects at the University of Texas at El Paso. 

Another barrier is the fear that information collected in the vaccination process could be used against them for future immigration purposes, she said. 

Hernandez also serves as the principal investigator for the National COVID-19 Resiliency Network led by the Morehouse School of Medicine. The purpose of this grant and outreach effort is to provide accurate information in Spanish and English about COVID-19 to farmworkers, dairy workers and meatpacking workers in El Paso County, South Doña Ana County and Moore County in the Texas Panhandle. 

Sin Fronteras Organizing Project published a letter on January 1 calling for help and support from the state and local authorities to prioritize farmworkers. 

“Since the beginning of the pandemic farmworkers were labeled essential workers, but when the vaccine was available, they were never on the priority list,” Marentes said. 

Marentes and his team attempted to register farmworkers through the city, but never got an appointment despite qualifying because of health conditions and age. 

“Finally, after applying so much pressure on the health authorities, politicians and community leaders; the Office of Emergency and Management came and vaccinated 63 farmworkers here,” Marentes said. 

For De La Mora, having the vaccine available at the farmworkers center was key. Due to her lack of transportation means, her needs for childcare of her three children and her lack of English, getting vaccinated was a challenge. Her biggest concern was that her private information could be used against her, since she is currently in the immigration process. 

“Since December I have been talking to all the farmworkers and their families, (telling them) that the vaccine is safe, to not to be afraid to sign up. But they are still afraid and I don’t blame them — they are very vulnerable, their families depend on them, and they cannot risk having a problem with immigration,” Marentes said. 

“You know, we see a lot of things on Facebook … about the vaccine, and of course, you are afraid. Why should we trust the government? The government has always forgotten us (farmworkers),” De La Mora said. 

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy

Despite her concerns, De La Mora was vaccinated. Now, she encourages her neighbors who are also farmworkers or retired farmworkers to also look into getting the vaccine. 

Farmworker Verenice De La Mora continues sanitizing in her house whenever anyone comes in and out. She relies on food pantries to bring food to the table for her children. (Maria Ramos Pacheco/El Paso Matters)

But many in De La Mora’s community are still skeptical about the vaccine. The Paso Del Norte Health Foundation has also been working on these issues through their campaign Reduce the Risk, studying vaccination hesitancy in the community, including among farmworkers and immigrants.  

“We didn’t see conspiracy beliefs, or a lot about politics, or that kind of thing. We heard much more about these logistic challenges and privacy concerns and the rapidity of the vaccine concern development,” said Theodore Cooper, who oversaw the focus groups of the vaccination hesitancy research. Cooper is an associate professor in the psychology department at UTEP. 

Another barrier for farmworkers is timing: their work schedules conflict with vaccine distribution openings. The typical schedule for a farmworker begins at midnight in Downtown El Paso. There, they try to find contractors to hire them for the day. Once they secure a job, they have to travel to the farms. It can be anywhere from 30 minutes to two or three hours, depending on the location. Workers often are there all day, coming home around 5 or 6 p.m., Marentes said.

“Farmworkers only have Sundays to rest, and the vaccine places are not open on Sundays. We work long hours, so it is hard for us. Why don’t they just give more vaccines to Mr. Marentes for the center?” De La Mora said. 

While the Sin Fronteras Organizing Project waits for more vaccine allocations for farmworkers, Marentes continues to sign up people every day, educating them on the benefits of getting vaccinated and of trusting the health experts. 

“For these logistical barriers, try and let us help you overcome them as a community, outreach to friends and family too, and feel pretty assured that data are going to remain private and confidential, and that the real emphasis here is on public health,” Cooper said.

Cover photo: Farmworkers waited to be picked up for work at the Border Agriculture Workers Center in Downtown El Paso in 2020. Center director Carlos Marentes is in the red shirt in the foreground. (Photo courtesy of Carlos Marentes)

Interviews with Verenice De La Mora and Carlos Marentes were translated from Spanish to English. 

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Maria Ramos Pacheco

Maria Ramos Pacheco was born and raised in Chihuahua and is a multimedia journalism student at the University of Texas. Ramos Pacheco is interested in covering immigration and culture.

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