Undocumented Workers Feed Us. However You Feel About Immigration, They Deserve Health Care.

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Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Here’s the question I’m wrestling with: Should my home state of California give subsidized health-care coverage to undocumented immigrants?

No need to weigh in. The question is moot. California will soon become the first state to offer universal access to health coverage.

The historic change was part of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s next state budget allocation, which includes a plan to expand the state’s Medi-Cal program.

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That program ensures that low-income residents have state-funded access to health care, and it already offers coverage to undocumented immigrants who are younger than 26 or older than 50. But, previously, the program left out the people in the middle—who it is safe to say represent the hardest-working and most-productive age cohort.

Starting on Jan. 1, 2024, Medi-Cal will be expanded to cover an additional 700,000 undocumented residents between the ages of 26-49. This change is expected to result in the largest drop in the rate of uninsured Californians in a decade.

This is a good thing, right? I wasn’t so sure at first, needing to resolve the notion in my own head, and more importantly, in my own heart.

For me, making sure all undocumented immigrants have health insurance—cradle to grave—stands in conflict with two different aspects of how I see the world.

On the one hand, in the immigration debate—just like in the debates over gun control or abortion or vaccines or anything else—I eschew the extremes and aim for the center. That means being ready to compromise, negotiate, and give a little up to get a little back. You can’t overreach, get greedy or take too much. You have to be reasonable and restrained, and avoid the policies supported by the folks at the radical fringe.

That part of me suggests this change is not a good idea. It feels like Newsom and the Democrats who run this state have given up on seeking consensus, and now they’re just rubbing Republicans’ faces in whatever progressive cause they’re able to.

Why? Because they can. In a deep blue state where Democratic legislators can pass whatever they like without a single Republican vote, the party in power wields it with abandon. And to borrow a word that the liberal media overused during the reign of former President Donald Trump, Democrats want to “normalize” the idea of people being in the United States illegally.

If someone trespasses across a nation’s border without permission, or overstays a visa, this is not something we should be so eager to sweep under the rug. The only exceptions are the so-called Dreamers who were brought here as children by their parents. We should always make an attempt to accommodate those who had no choice. But what Democrats in California are doing now goes well beyond that. And, in a way, it’s unseemly.

Think about the gluttonous excesses of Texas Republicans when it comes to guns, abortion, and LGBTQ rights. Things can get ugly and crazy in a hurry when one side runs roughshod over the other, right?

Well, that’s exactly how California Republicans—the few that remain—feel about the legislative chicanery that goes on in the Golden State.

Having said that, there is another side to this story—and another part of me. That part is not at all persuaded by gripes that giving health coverage to a bunch of hard working, economically disadvantaged folks who can’t afford it—and so they often just walk around, go to work sick, and make others ill—somehow “normalizes” unlawful activity.

That’s absurd. You know what really normalizes illegal immigration? The fact that California’s employers—starting with the typical household—can’t get enough of it and could no longer live without it.

Californians—like most Americans—are addicted to cheap and dependable labor. Among the most dependent are U.S. homeowners, who have come to depend on the “temp pool” of undocumented workers for gardeners, housekeepers, nannies, and senior caregivers. (As well as farms, ranches, restaurants, hotels, resorts, and construction firms.)

In California—which has the world’s fifth-largest economy with an annual gross state product (GSP) of $3.4 trillion—if we didn’t have undocumented immigrants to keep the wheels turning, we’d have to invent them.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest arrive early in the morning to begin harvesting in Greenfield, California. They practice social distancing, and use masks, gloves, hair nets and aprons.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images</div>

Farm laborers from Fresh Harvest arrive early in the morning to begin harvesting in Greenfield, California. They practice social distancing, and use masks, gloves, hair nets and aprons.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

And yet, even in this gargantuan economy, where the state government in California has more money these days than it knows what to do with thanks to a $100 billion surplus—undocumented Californians make up the largest group of the state’s uninsured, according to the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

And where did that surplus come from? A lot of it stems not from individuals but from the companies, firms and corporations that do business in California.

Let’s look at just one of those industries—one that would be totally crippled without undocumented workers (and that’s under normal circumstances, not the worker shortage we’re experiencing now in the state): agriculture.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Roman Pinal of the United Farm Workers (UFW) distributes face masks and hand sanitizer to a farmworker as they pick lemons at an orchard in Ventura County, California.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images</div>

Roman Pinal of the United Farm Workers (UFW) distributes face masks and hand sanitizer to a farmworker as they pick lemons at an orchard in Ventura County, California.

Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Don’t cry for California farmers. When they’re not growing peaches, avocados, lettuce, and dozens of other crops, they’re printing money. According to the Global Migration Center at University of California-Davis, California’s 70,000 farms sold farm commodities worth $50 billion in 2019. That was almost twice the $28 billion in farm sales of Iowa.

The global pandemic should have been a wake-up call that made it crystal clear to Californians once and for all just who butters their bread—after making both the butter and the bread.

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In the California economy—which represents as much as 15 percent of the total U.S. economy—the “essential worker” is very often an undocumented one. When the state (and the country) were stricken with a frightening version of “food insecurity” and facing empty grocery shelves, it was undocumented farm workers who came to the rescue.

And given all that, even in the richest agricultural county in the state—my native Fresno County—you still have clueless people calling into conservative radio shows to complain about how “illegals” are draining the state dry.

That’s bullshit!

To recap, California—which is fat and happy, thanks in large part to its over dependence on undocumented workers—is now going to make sure that these people who go to work every day at jobs that U.S. citizens won’t touch with a 10-foot shovel, rake or hoe have basic health-care coverage.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Migrant farm laborers have their temperature checked and are asked questions about their health before boarding the bus to their shift, in the company living quarters in King City, California.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images</div>

Migrant farm laborers have their temperature checked and are asked questions about their health before boarding the bus to their shift, in the company living quarters in King City, California.

Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

To this, I say: “Good. It’s about damn time. This is the decent thing to do, and it’s the least we can do.” Everyone who is bitching and moaning about this “giveaway” should just say “gracias” and go on their way. Or they can go out into the fields one summer day and see how they fare doing one of these “stolen” jobs. We’ll have paramedics standing by.

My inner conflict is resolved. Honesty and common sense carried me through. In the end, the only moral thing to do is also the sensible thing. In our society, the undocumented are among the most vulnerable.

We have to take care of them because they take care of us. It’s really that simple.

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