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Migrant Workers Hit Hard By Hurricane Florence


Some of the people hardest hit in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence are migrant farm workers. North Carolina farmers bring in thousands of laborers primarily from Mexico on visas each year, and there are many others without legal immigration status who also work in the fields. From La Grange N.C., NPR's Jason Beaubien reports on the challenges they face and the efforts to help them.

MELISSA BAILEY CASTILLO: How did we get here. Like...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: What happened?

CASTILLO: Are we not coming back the same way we went in?

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Melissa Bailey Castillo is driving her well-worn 2005 Dodge Caravan along narrow roads lined by flooded ditches. She's trying to deliver food and bottled water to some farmworker families who've been calling her for the last three days asking for help. Her 15-year-old son is navigating, but their path keeps getting blocked by rising water.

CASTILLO: Did we pass some side roads, guys?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, this is definitely not where we came from.

BEAUBIEN: Castillo works with the Kinston Community Health Center. She says in the wake of Hurricane Florence, many immigrant farm workers are now cut off. She says many of them had no idea how bad a storm like this could be.

CASTILLO: Everybody was, like, rushing to the grocery store to buy everything they could. Well, farm workers didn't do that (laughter). They had no idea to do that.

BEAUBIEN: And now they don't know which roads or stores are open. Castillo says there's been very little information put out in Spanish.

CASTILLO: If you turn on the radio, there's not a Spanish media station. Everything is in English.

BEAUBIEN: Finally Castillo spots the landmark she's been looking for, a small corner store called La Tienda Lilly. Further up the road, she meets the group of women who've been waiting for her.

CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

CASTILLO: Janet Serrano, whose husband works on a chicken farm, is driving and translating for the women.

JANET SERRANO: Since I have a license - they can't drive. So I'm protecting them from being stopped. And I'm trying to look for food and water myself, you know? And - but I thank God we have jobs, but how can we get to a job when we - there's no road to get to it?

BEAUBIEN: Serrano says the biggest problem right now is that the tap water is bad, and they can't drink it.

When you say the water is bad, what's - what...

SERRANO: It comes out very cloudy. Yeah, it's not good.

BEAUBIEN: Local officials have told people to boil their water, but Serrano says some people who've been without power for days aren't even getting any water flowing out of their faucets. A bigger issue, she says, is that many of these migrant families are scared of all the government officials in the area. The Department of Homeland Security deployed ICE agents to help with the relief efforts. But when photos of the officers in uniform and their trucks started to spread on social media, Serrano says people were afraid they were carrying out immigration raids.

SERRANO: Just like when immigration was here in Mount Olive. And they see it on Facebook, and they don't want to come out because of the simple fact that they think they're going to get deported.

BEAUBIEN: DHS officials have said they are not carrying out immigration enforcement operations during this crisis, but that message has gotten lost for many undocumented farm workers. Serrano adds that even some legal migrants are worried about going to shelters or seeking other help because they've heard proclamations that using government services could jeopardize their immigration status.

Castillo with the health center says that even in the best of times, migrant farm workers are living in the shadows here. And she says during this life-threatening natural disaster, communication with this community is even worse. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, La Grange, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.