Fires Highlight Safety Needs of Migrant Workers San Diego County is home to tens of thousands of immigrant workers — legal and undocumented. Their homes and workplaces may be at risk, but poor access to services and fear of immigration authorities at evacuation centers may keep some from seeking shelter.
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Fires Highlight Safety Needs of Migrant Workers

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Fires Highlight Safety Needs of Migrant Workers

Fires Highlight Safety Needs of Migrant Workers

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Border Patrol agents have found four badly burned bodies in a rocky canyon outside of San Diego. It's an area where illegal immigrants are known to cross. Authorities say it's still too early to know if these apparent victims of the wildfires were migrants. But there have been concerns this week about immigrants getting left out of the fire evacuations.

Amy Isackson of member station KPBS reports.

AMY ISACKSON: Jesus Gomez from Oaxaca was at his job at a nursery in San Diego's North County when the Witch fire roared in from the east. His crew kept working while wind whipped smoke and ash in their eyes.

Mr. JESUS GOMEZ (Nursery Worker): They gave us masks, but still, our eyes was filling with dirt and ashes. So we keep working, but then the police came in.

ISACKSON: Gomez says his boss told him to stop working only after law enforcement gave the mandatory evacuation order. He's been out of work since, though he may be an exception.

At the tomato field across the street and at other fields too close for comfort to the fires, many laborers have not missed a day tending the crops.

Alberto Lozano is with the Mexican Consulate in San Diego. He's concerned that workers care more about their jobs than their personal safety.

Mr. ALBERTO LOZANO (Spokesman, Mexican Consulate, San Diego): They could smell the smoke and they could see the light of the fire. But since their boss didn't order them to leave, they were thinking that they were just saving their jobs.

ISACKSON: San Diego's tomato business is worth about $88 million annually, the nursery business, about a billion. About 1,500 of the many thousands of immigrant workers who tend those crops live in the canyons amongst the county's toniest suburbs.

Many of the homes in these suburbs were evacuated earlier this week. They received an emergency call that it was time to go. Not so for the canyon dwellers.

Immigrants' rights activist, Enrique Morones.

Mr. ENRIQUE MORONES (Immigrants Rights Activist): There's no reverse 911 for them.

ISACKSON: Morones says many migrant workers stayed and figured they could outrun the flames. Many other illegal immigrants fled actual homes and were also reticent to go to shelters. Morones says they're used to living in the shadows and are afraid to register at evacuation centers.

Shortly after flames began consuming wide swaths of San Diego, rumors that federal officials were conducting immigration raids also spread across the county. The Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are lending 200 officers to law enforcement efforts during the fire. Just their very presence in the streets ignites people's fears. However, both agencies say immigration status is not their primary concern in San Diego right now.

There's also word that smugglers are telling people now is the time to cross the border illegally from Mexico - to take advantage of the chaos.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (U.S. Department of Homeland Security): Anybody who is thinking of crossing the border with fires raging is taking an exceptionally foolish risk.

ISACKSON: Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff issued a stern warning when he visited San Diego this week.

Mr. CHERTOFF: Being in the area of the border now with an unpredictable fire is a life-threatening mistake.

ISACKSON: Border Patrol officials say they've arrested 200 people trying to cross illegally in the fire area since Monday. Six remain hospitalized with burns and one is in critical condition.

Border Patrol officials say aside from rescuing migrants from the flames. The blaze has made their job easier. They say they can see for miles along the border now that the fire has consumed the brush in which illegal border crossers often hide.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Isackson in San Diego.

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