Undocumented Workers' Added Anxiety - Part II

The wildfires in Southern California have hit several areas populated by undocumented immigrant workers. KPBS public radio reporter Amy Isackson explains how the immigrant community is coping with the fires and how the disaster is affecting U.S. border control.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to go now to reporter Amy Isaacson of member station KPBS in San Diego. She's also been covering how the fires are affecting undocumented residents in the area.

Hi, Amy.

AMY ISAACSON: Hi. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm good. Now, give me a sense of the populations that we're talking about, and I would also like to hear about what's going on at the border. Are people still trying to cross in either direction, despite the fires?

ISAACSON: People are still trying to cross from Mexico. One of the fires here in San Diego County is burning right in the Tecate-Campo area, which is one of the popular crossing areas out east of the county. And the Border Patrol says that they have arrested 200 people since Monday trying to cross the border illegally from Mexico. They say a group of 50 people just came up to them and gave up and said that they realized that it was too dangerous and that they needed help.

The Border Patrol has also rescued some people. There were six people who were burned. They were taken to a local hospital. One, I understand, is still in critical condition. The Mexican consulate here in San Diego is actually working to try and get the family of this man humanitarian visas so that they can come and be by his side.

There's also word that smugglers in Mexico maybe urging people to cross now and saying take advantage of the chaos. They're not looking at the border, and let's go now. When Michael Chertoff was here in San Diego earlier this week, he issued a stern warning, saying now is not the time to cross. You know, never is the time to cross, but now is not the time to cross, especially because it's just such a life-threatening situation.

MARTIN: Well, that's what they're telling people. What's their strategy, though, for addressing this situation? On the one hand, you know, the border control authorities have to be mindful of their own safety. On the other hand, there is this humanitarian situation here. What is their strategy for dealing with this? Or is there any special effort to get to people because of the fires?

ISAACSON: Along the border, I believe, you know, when I spoke with Border Patrol agents yesterday, it's kind of two-fold. One is still to enforce border laws and not allow people to cross. The Border Patrol also has a special unit called the BORSTAR, which is a search-and-rescue unit, and they have been busy making sure that they rescue those people who are in need.

You know, interestingly enough, a Border Patrol spokesman told me yesterday that the fires actually made their job a bit easier aside from the rescues, because it's burned all of the underbrush along - that runs along the border that when people come across, they often hide in that underbrush to hide from Border Patrol agents. But now the agents say that they can see for miles, because the fire has cleared the path.

MARTIN: What about migrant workers in - this is a big agricultural area as well, and I bet you know some of the migrant workers are probably documented, some of them are probably not. Do you have any sense of how they're getting information about what's going on? Do they have any sense of where to go or what to do?

ISAACSON: I was out yesterday, talking to a group of agricultural workers and day laborers who were mostly undocumented, and, you know, there's kind of two groups. One, there's a group of people, about fifteen hundred men it's estimated, who actually live in the canyons near the fields where they work. They were telling me - some of them - that they don't have TV. They don't have radio. Some said they could smell smoke, they could, you know, they were breathing in the ash. They knew something was going on, but they didn't know exactly what or how life threatening it was because they weren't getting information.

Many of those people told me that they just decided to stay. They figured if the fire came upon them, they could just outrun the flames. They also were concerned that they would lose their jobs if they left and, you know, there would just be someone in line waiting to take their job behind them, so they didn't go.

Then there's another population of undocumented immigrants in San Diego, a large population, who live in apartments, live in houses, et cetera. And we have to assume that they were getting information from TV, radio. There was concern that - from some immigrants rights activists that the media wasn't doing enough to broadcast in Spanish. However, there are a number of Spanish-language channels here that were broadcasting in Spanish.

MARTIN: And they have local information.

ISAACSON: That's correct.

MARTIN: Okay, Amy, I'm going to ask you to stand by just in case you want to contribute to our next conversation. I'm going to bring in a perspective from another community.

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