Gabrielle Felder

Project title: The Intersection of Immigration and Climate Change in Farm Worker Communities

Degree: MPH | Program: Environmental and Occupational Health (EOH) | Project type: Thesis/Dissertation
Completed in: 2020 | Faculty advisor: John Meschke


In this paper, we describe the way in which socioeconomic factors (i.e. language, socioeconomic status, and education), climate change, and the migration patterns of US farm worker populations affect healthcare utilization across the nation, specifically in Washington State. The majority of farm industry workers are immigrants, with a large number coming from Mexico and other Latin countries. Immigration is a social determinant of health that contributes to other socioeconomic disparities. The farm worker population experiences a range of factors relating to immigration and immigration status, education, and poverty that impact health. Common reasons for decreased healthcare access and utilization in immigrant communities include geographic and linguistic isolation, lack of employer-provided care, unmet Medicaid qualifications, and documentation status. In addition to socioeconomic forces impacting health, farm worker health is also affected by the environment. The intimate connection between agriculture and climate can lead to climate driven impacts on employment. The length of the growing season represents the time between the last spring frost and the first fall frost. Due to regional temperature increases in Washington State and across the nation resulting from climate change, the length of the growing season in the US has been increasing. Quantitative analysis of the correlation between the nationwide change in the length of growing season versus the nationwide percentage of migrant farm workers suggests that climate change effects are reflected in the settling behavior of migrant communities. The study design for this paper is a quantitative descriptive analysis of publicly available data and geographic information system data paired with the Social Ecological Model as a conceptual framework. Highlighting King, Skagit, Whatcom, and Yakima Counties paints a broad picture of the ways climate driven changes in migration patterns would impact urban and rural health care systems differently. Examining the differences in health care facility locations and utilizing the Social Ecological Model to examine the social determinants that are barriers to health care utilization illustrates the need for more culturally relevant interventions, health clinics, and policies in rural areas to accommodate immigrant communities from Latin America. The hypothesis explored in this paper is that as the length of the growing season increases, the percentage of migrant farm workers decreases. As the share of settled farm workers increases, the amount of farm workers relying on one local healthcare system increases. The decrease in the migrant share of farm workers has the potential to impact the healthcare infrastructure of Washington State counties with large Latinx/Hispanic farm worker communities, particularly in rural areas, by overburdening the healthcare system as migrant workers transition to settled workers. Understanding the association between climate change, migration, and access to health care will inform future policy decisions and interventions concerning healthcare access in Latin American communities in the US. URI