Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Latino Doctor provides a haven for migrant farmworkers

On the 15-mile drive between his two Central Valley medical clinics, Dr. J. Luis Bautista often passes armies of farmworkers stooped over in the fields, picking onions, melons and tomatoes.

Most of the 30,000 annual office visits to his small staff of doctors and nurses in downtown Fresno and the nearby rural town of Sanger are by these farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented. The 64-year-old physician has personal insight into the struggles of these laborers: He was once one of them.

As a boy, he picked fruit alongside his parents and nine siblings in Ventura County, where the family made $4,000 a year, – rarely enough to spare for doctor’s visits. These days, Bautista sees that many farmworkers still lack the transportation, money or time off from work to treat injuries, let alone seek preventive medical care.

Plus, there is the heightened fear that by seeking medical treatment they might be exposed to federal immigration authorities. “I pledged in medical school to help these people in the farm fields,” said Bautista, he treats them whether or not they have money — or legal documents. “We never say no to patients,” he said.

Although California law strictly limits the state’s cooperation with U.S. immigration enforcement, some jurisdictions outside the Central Valley have decided to participate in federal efforts to detain undocumented workers. Others fear that if they enroll in programs for low-income residents, they’ll later be denied permanent residence, the so-called green card, or U.S. citizenship.

“Many people don’t know what the government will do,” Bautista said. “They tell me that one reason they don’t go to the doctor is over fear they’ll be reported.” Bautista’s two clinics provide a haven for immigrants burdened by these concerns, there they are never asked about their immigration status, and the staffs have set up protocols in case the offices are raided by immigration authorities. “I feel secure with him,” said Julia Rojas, a 45-year-old.