Large numbers of migrant workers who came to the state decades ago and stayed after amnesty in the 1980s allowed them to become citizens are now well into their 60s and suffering from health problems related to years of farm work.

Share story




YAKIMA — In 1972, Raul Soto immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, expecting to work for only a few years before returning to his home country.

Forty years later, the 69-year-old former fruit picker is growing old in America.

“I still think about going back to Mexico, but I have never returned,” said Soto, now a U.S. citizen. “I never thought I would stay in this country, but I did.”

In Washington state, the number of older Hispanic or Latino people now tops 20,000 — twice the number in 2000, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The large numbers are driven in part by migrant workers who came to the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 made American citizenship a possibility for those who entered the U.S. before 1982, encouraging many — like Soto — to stay.

“My dad’s generation — they came here to work for a few years then go back,” said the Rev. Felipe Puleto, a Catholic priest at Saint Joseph’s Parish in Yakima. “But once they were here, and the kids were growing up and learning the language and culture, Mexico seemed to get farther and farther away.”

That older population now presents a unique challenge for medical, social and housing organizations.

And because aging Hispanics are less likely to seek and receive health care, they are prone to chronic problems like heart disease, diabetes, dementia and cancer, according to state and federal studies. Studies also show that older farmworkers, in particular, are likely to suffer from a variety of work-related health problems.

Farmworkers are, in general, invisible, said Brien Thane, former executive director of Washington Farm Worker Housing Trust, which was recently dissolved due to lack of funding.

And “elderly farmworkers are like the invisible of the invisible,” he said.

Projections

Older Hispanic people now represent the nation’s fastest-growing population currently at or near retirement age.

Nationally, Census Bureau projections indicate that the older Hispanic population — people 65 and older — will grow from 2.9 million in 2010 to 13.8 million by 2050. Hispanics are also living longer than non-Hispanic whites and blacks, experts say.

“Latino adults are clearly living longer, but they are not living better,” said Yanira Cruz, president of the National Hispanic Council on Aging. “Their quality (of life) is very weak, leaving a lot to be desired.”

Those seniors who are here illegally face greater difficulties in accessing care, experts say.

“The limited access to services that are culturally and linguistically appropriate presents major challenges,” Cruz said. “Access to services, as a result, becomes a big challenge.”

Jorge Madrazo, vice president of community relations for Sea Mar Community Health Centers, a nonprofit organization specializing in service to Latinos, said the growing population of older Hispanics is being hurt by budget cuts to health care from the government.

Sea Mar, a network of medical clinics in Western Washington counties, has suffered deep cuts while trying to continue the same level of service, he said.

“Only through the community-health centers will we be able to attend to this huge demand by low-income patients,” Madrazo said. “For many of these patients, the only way to take care of their health needs is through community-health centers.”

Health challenges

In Yakima County, the country’s top producer of apples and hops, nearly half of the 220,000 residents are Hispanic.

Nearly 4,000 of those Hispanic residents are age 65 or older, census data show.

At the Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, Dr. Paul Monahan has treated agricultural workers for the last 41 years. Monahan said many older farmworkers deal with injuries from the repetitive nature of farm work.

Rather than crippling impairments, their disabilities tend to be restrictive but not all-encompassing, he said.

“Overuse is the most common thing,” Monahan said. “Have you ever seen any videos of asparagus workers? They bend and they bend and they bend some more. And (it is no) surprise that they get an injury later on.”

According to federal studies, farmworkers are at high risk for work-related injuries, lung diseases, noise-induced hearing loss, skin diseases, and cancers associated with perpetual sun exposure.

Pesticide exposure also presents concerns for older workers, but few studies have addressed the effects of long-term exposure, Monahan said. Absent those studies, physicians may not be able to tell whether health problems in elderly patients are linked to pesticide exposure, he said.

Older Hispanics often feel isolated because they don’t understand how to navigate the health-care system, according to a 2011 report from Hispanics in Philanthropy, an organization that connects Hispanic nonprofits with grant funding.

As a result, lingering problems like hypertension and arthritis may go untreated.

Paul Apostolidis, an associate professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, studies the working conditions and occupational hazards facing migrant workers.

“You have workers in their 20s who lose their capacity for work (because of injuries),” he said. “It’s like they are elderly in their time.”

Worried about kids

Puleto, the Yakima priest, worked in the fields with his family when they first arrived in the U.S. from Mexico.

He said many older Hispanic farmworkers are more concerned with their children having access to health care than themselves.

“If they have headaches or even depression, they deal with that in their own ways,” Puleto said. “Only if the pain is severe, they go to the farmworkers clinic. If it is something mild, they just take an aspirin or even natural medications.”

Like Raul Soto, many who came here as migrant workers stayed after becoming American citizens under the nation’s amnesty policy of the 1980s.

Jose Aguilar, 75, moved to California in 1971 to work at a clothing factory, later moving to Washington state, where he worked for decades as a farmworker.

Now a U.S. citizen, he lives in the Yakima County town of Zillah, choosing to stay in the U.S. to receive health care.

“I wanted to go back to Mexico, but I stayed here so the doctor can check up on me,” Aguilar said.

The Murrow News Services provides local, regional and statewide stories reported and written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communications at Washington State University.

Stephanie Schendel contributed to this report.