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COVID-19 Worsens Already Poor Conditions For Imperial County, Farmworkers

Cover image for podcast episode

Eric Villanueva

In this Jan. 17, 2021, photo, a line forms more than 12 hours in advance outside of the Imperial Valley Mall in El Centro, where a clinic was held to vaccinate residents 65 and older against COVID-19.

Imperial County’s farm workers have long struggled with poor housing, low wages and barriers to health care. Major outbreaks of COVID-19 have sickened many in the community while at the same time worsening those living conditions--a story from our partners at inewsource. Plus, A new mission for a new San Diego Zoo. And, new efforts at the border for reuniting families.

Good Morning, I’m Annica Colbert….it’s Wednesday March 3rd.

The pandemic worsens the struggles of Imperial county farmworkers.

We’ll have more on that next. But first... let’s do the headlines….

Seven California counties moved out of the most restrictive purple tier this week because of improving COVID-19 case rates.. San Diego County was not one of them. Those counties moving into the red tier can reopen businesses for indoor operations at a limited capacity.

In San Diego officials are reporting more than 21 percent of residents 16 and older have one dose of vaccine, and 10% are fully immunized. At the same time, county public health officials reported more than 300 new coronavirus infections and 14 new deaths. The adjusted case rate for San Diego is 10.8 cases per 100,000 people. To move into the less restrictive red tier, that rate has to drop below 7 per 100,000.

San Diego county’s emergency rental assistance program is open. To be eligible, you must be experiencing financial hardship related to the pandemic. Here’s supervisor Nathan Fletcher….

WE KNOW ITS BEEN A HARD YEAR. AND WE'RE EXCITED ABOUT THE PROGRESS WE'RE MAKING BUT WE KNOW THE IMPACTS ARE GOING TO LINGER FOR SOME TIME AND WE'RE GOING TO DO EVERYTHING WE CAN TO HELP FOLKS GET OUR ECONOMY BACK ON TRACK, GET PEOPLE MADE BACK WHOLE, AND REALLY REBUILD SAN DIEGO.

The program is not open to people in the cities of san diego and chula vista, because those cities have their own rent relief funds. You can apply through the county website.

It’s expected to rain today, around midday with the bulk of the showers moving through in the afternoon. Thunderstorms are possible for coastal areas and valleys. The deserts will largely remain dry.

From KPBS, you’re listening to San Diego News Now.

Stay with me for more of the local news you need.

Imperial County’s farm workers have long been plagued by poor housing options, low wages and barriers to healthcare. And COVID-19 has only made those conditions worse. Now, local leaders say more help is needed for the workers who serve as the backbone of the county’s four-and-a-half billion dollar agriculture industry. Reporter Jennifer Bowman from our partner inewsource has the details …

BOWMAN: It’s a sunny weekday afternoon in downtown Calexico, and the streets are bustling. The border city serves as a hub for thousands of farmworkers who arrive before the sun rises to head to the fields.
COVID-19 has ravaged Imperial County and caused outbreaks in the agriculture industry statewide. But even during a pandemic, Kesifredo Figueroa is reporting for work.
FIGUEROA: "Tengo fe en Dios que no sucede nada. No tengo temor." (00:04) (TRANSLATION: “I have faith in God that nothing will happen. I don't have fear.”)
BOWMAN: Figueroa began working on farms three decades ago, when he was in his early 20s. He lives in Mexicali and crosses the border every day he works. Though Imperial County is the cheapest place to live in California, Figueroa says he can’t afford to live in the U-S.
FIGUEROA: “Nos ganamos poco aquí en el campo para una renta. Una renta aqui viene a un 800 a mil dólares.” (00:07) (TRANSLATION: We make little money in the fields here to cover rent. Rent here comes out to 800 to 1,000 dollars.)
BOWMAN: The agriculture industry dominates Imperial’s economy. But low wages and barriers to healthcare have long been problems for its farmworkers. The pandemic has made things worse.
(NAT SOUND OF ENCAMPMENT)
BOWMAN: A new camp for farmworkers popped up along the border in Calexico earlier this year. On one side of the row of tents is an apartment complex, the other the metal brown barrier that separates the two cities.
BOWMAN: Some of those at the camp are homeless farmworkers, and others are seeking a place to stay instead of making the hourslong commute across the border.
Jose Mundaca (MOON-da-ka) is one of them. The 44-year-old lived in Calexico but said his house burned down in December. He said he must stay in the U-S to maintain his residency but his low pay has made the search for a new place difficult.
MUNDACA: “El departamento que hay es muy caro, son mil doscientos, pero mi trabajo no me permite para tanto.” (00:06) (TRANSLATION: “The apartments are very expensive. They’re twelve-hundred. But my work doesn’t provide for that much.”)
BOWMAN: Farmworkers have crossed the border and entered Calexico for decades. But there is no designated place for them to gather as they wait in the middle of the night. Some hang out at a donut shop or a fast food restaurant before getting on buses.
CARDENAS: “And it’s backpack city.” (00:02)
BOWMAN: Alex Cardenas (kar-deh-NAS) is a board member at Vo Neighborhood Medical Clinic. The organization is helping farmworkers with isolation housing during the pandemic. Cardenas (kar-deh-NAS) says even before COVID-19, the workers weren’t always welcomed downtown.
CARDENAS: “Don’t use the restroom unless you’re a paying customer, you know, you can only be in the restroom for five minutes, no bathing So imagine you walk into this restaurant and there’s all this signature and signage basically not welcoming you.”
BOWMAN: When the pandemic shut down businesses, it closed public restrooms, too. Farmworkers are now left with even fewer options than before.
URENA: “We need an emergency plan now.” (00:02)
BOWMAN: Raul Ureña (yoo-REN-yuh) is a first-term Calexico city councilmember. He says more farmworkers are sleeping on the streets during COVID-19. He’s now pushing the city to seek grants for permanent housing.
URENA: “You look at the quote, unquote unemployed or regular homeless population. How many of them are disenfranchised farm workers?” (00:06)
BOWMAN: Governor Gavin Newsom last week signed legislation that gives 24-million-dollars in extra funding to help farmworkers. The money will go toward services for those isolating because of COVID-19 and financial assistance. For KPBS, I’m inewsource investigative reporter Jennifer Bowman.

IMPERIAL COUNTY also needs access toMORE COVID-19 VACCINE. Officials there are asking the state government for help.

We have INEWSOURCE REPORTER JENNIFER BOWMAN again.

The county Board of Supervisors has sent two letters since January to Governor Gavin Newsom. Officials say similar-sized counties with lower poverty rates and fewer COVID-19 cases have received more doses.CARDENAS: “We are the poster child for systemic racism.” Alex Cardenas [Car-dah-NAS] is a former El Centro mayor. He says Imperial’s poor conditions and lack of services are a financial burden on local governments, while state and federal leaders aren’t held accountable.BOWMAN: Newsom’s office told inewsource the state increased vaccine allocations by 91 percent last week and also offered an additional vaccination site to the county.BOWMAN: For KPBS, I’m inewsource reporter Jennifer Bowman.

That reporting was from Inewsource’ investigative reporter Jennifer Bowman. For more on this story, go to inewsource dot org. Inewsource is an independently funded nonprofit partner of KPBS

Imperial County was the site of a deadly crash on Tuesday morning that left 13 people dead.
about 10 miles north of the U-S Mexico border.. The CHP says it happened after an over-packed SUV and a semi truck collided in the early morning hours.. KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman says some crash victims were taken to San Diego hospitals.

CHP officials say 25 people were inside an SUV when it collided with a semi truck in Holtville near El Centro.
Twelve people, including the driver who is a Mexican national died at the scene..
CHP division chief Omar Watson described the crash aftermath as chaotic..
Obviously that vehicle isn’t meant for that many people -- it’s unfortunate that that many people were put into that vehicle because there’s obviously not enough safely restraints to keep those people within the vehicle and some people were ejected.
Survivors that had some of the worst injuries were taken to San Diego area hospitals... Four people were airlifted to UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest while one adult and a minor were taken to Scripps Mercy Hospital..
The CHP is still trying to determine what nationality the passengers are.. And a spokesperson said they are investigating where the SUV was coming from and if it may have run a stop sign.

And that was KPBS’ Matt Hoffman.

THOUSANDS OF CALIFORNIANS ARE GETTING A NASTY SURPRISE AS THEY gather their paperwork to FILE THEIR INCOME TAX RETURNS THIS YEAR.

AS CAP RADIO’S MIKE HAGERTY TELLS US, THEY ARE VICTIMS OF UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE FRAUD.

Most of the unemployment fraud was accomplished through identity theft. Now victims are getting what’s called a Form 1099-G, showing taxable income in the form of unemployment benefits.
Internal Revenue Service spokesperson David Tucker says victims don’t have to pay taxes on money they didn’t get...but if you were one of those victims you do need to let the state know and request a corrected Form 1099-G right away. And don’t worry if you don’t get that corrected form back before you file your return.
TUCKER: “If for some reason they’re finding challenges in terms of being able to receive that corrected form on a timely basis, what they should do is still file an accurate federal tax return and report only the income that they actually received.” (:15)
Tucker says the state will supply the IRS with the corrected form, so you don’t have to play middleman---but, you should absolutely keep the corrected copy that they’ll send you as part of your tax records.
Mike Hagerty, CapRadio News.

About 5-hundred children separated from their parents at the US Mexico border under the Trump administration have still not been reunited with their families. As part of a plan to find and reunite families, the federal government announced this week that a “Lawful pathway” is being considered to allow those parents to reunite and stay with their children in the US.

Department of Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says the administration is also working with Central American nations to help find the parents. Mayorkus urged patience as the Biden administration works to restore an immigration system that he says has been badly dismantled during the Trump years….

Lee Gelernt is the Deputy Director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights. He spoke with KPBS’ Midday Edition host Maureen Cavanaugh about the situation…..

That was Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU immigrants’ Rights.

The San Diego Zoo Global is changing its name to San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in an effort to reflect the organization’s new mission.
KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson says the 105 year old organization is taking a more holistic approach to conservation.

“Swazi come”
Two African elephants Swazi and Qinisa eagerly reach out their trunks. Searching for a treat from lead keeper Lauren Coates.
“Their skin’s super thick and strong, but it’s really wrinkly. It’s kind of like a tire like it has some give to it even though you can tell it's super strong and it super wrinkly and they have hair all over their body. You can see it here on the trunk, but it’s really thick like wires.”
Coates reaches into a bucket full of cut up sweet potatoes, cucumbers, and food pellets.
“can you eat that food?”
The keeper says the elephants get treats a couple of times a day as part of their training.
“And they should respond to their names and if they come over they get reinforcement. For leaving what they were doing. And they walk away when we’re done and they get to enjoy all their treats again.”
Coates says the elephants have choice and control over what they do in the yard. The treats are a way to reinforce positive behaviors.
“In the beginning it's just getting them to know their names. To come to use when they’re called and then we can move into more complicated behaviors like blood collections, milk collections. Things like that that we can use for different studies.”
The two moms in this nine elephant herd have been part of a more than year-long study of elephant milk.
Keepers regularly take samples from lactating moms and analyze the milk’s composition. Researchers are trying to measure how elephant milk changes over time so they can help orphan elephants in Kenya. Workers at the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary can make age appropriate formulas that can be the difference between life and death for elephant calves. That connection makes the work in San Diego even more important for both researchers and keepers like Coates.
“The work that they do everyday is helping animals and plants in the wild.”
Nadine Lamberski is the organization’s chief conservation officer. She says the new San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance name reflects a holistic approach to conservation.
“It is about wildlife. But it’s also about people. And it’s also, again, about the ecosystem that we share. And it’s that balance of nature that becomes so important in our work.”
She says the concept hit home recently when the coronavirus infected the Safari Park’s gorilla troop. It was the first ever case of human to gorilla transmission. Several members of the troop were infected and the Silverback got monoclonal antibody therapy. All have recovered but Lamberski says the situation offered a lesson.
“this is an infection that originated from animals and then went into people and then unfortunately transmitted it back to animals. But it goes beyond just that. We had a meeting just the other day with our colleagues that work with great apes in the wild and we talked about how do we protect wild gorillas. What do we have to do to make sure they don’t suffer consequences because of this virus.”
In fact, Covid 19 helped push the zoo to change the way it does business around the world. San Diego Zoo CEO and president Paul Beribault says the zoo was making incremental movement this direction anyway, but the pandemic accelerated the change.
“Through this past year, we’ve all seen how our own human health is tied to the health of wildlife, it ties to the health of the entire planet and so in so many ways Covid was the catalyst that said. We have to do this now.”
Beribault says the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance brings research skills to the table. But he says that’s not enough for a complete solution which engages communities, governments, and other wildlife organizations outside of San Diego.
“For us to have a greater impact in conservation., we need to use this moment to energize everybody. All of our partners. All of our donors. All of our supporters here in San Diego to be a part of this solution.”
Beribault says the new focus doesn’t mean the two parks will be ignored. He says those parks must thrive for the organization to stay financially healthy.
Beribault says the animals, like the African elephants at the Safari Park, help connect local visitors to the organization’s research work.


And that was KPBS Environment Reporter Erik Anderson.

THE COMPANY THAT CONTROLS THE PUBLICATION OF DR. SEUSS CHILDREN’S BOOKS SAYS SIX OF THEM HAVE TO GO. DR. SEUSS ENTERPRISES MADE THE ANNOUNCEMENT onTUESDAY … DR. SEUSS’S BIRTHDAY. KPBS’s JOHN CARROLL reports.

EXPLAINS THE REASON BEHIND THE DECISION.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises said Tuesday it would cease publication and licensing of six Dr. Seuss books… The better known among them are Seuss’s first… 1937’s “And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street”... and “If I ran the Zoo” written in 1950. A statement from the company said “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The San Diego County Library’s youth material selector Cassie Koldewyn says the books in question are still on the shelves of county libraries. She says a process is underway to determine whether they’ll be pulled.
“We use the criteria in our policy to decide what stays and what goes and we try to really implement that as uniformly and as fairly as possible.”
The Seuss books aren’t alone. Other children’s books like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie series have also come under criticism recently for similar reasons. JC, KPBS News.

And before we let you go, we do have a correction.

On Monday we ran a story from our partners at Cap Radio about PG&E rate hikes. They reported an 8% increase, but the increase is actually about 5% -- the average residential bill will increase about 8 dollars a month. We regret the error.
That’s it for the podcast today. Be sure to catch KPBS Midday Edition At Noon on KPBS radio, or check out the Midday podcast. You can also watch KPBS Evening Edition at 5 O’clock on KPBS Television, and as always you can find more San Diego news online at KPBS dot org. I’m Annica Colbert. Thanks for listening and have a great day.

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San Diego News Now

San Diego news; when you want it, where you want it. Get local stories on politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings. Hosted by Anica Colbert and produced by KPBS, San Diego and the Imperial County's NPR and PBS station.