Thanks to a $300,000 grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), Dr. Meister and farm workers' health and human rights groups, Campesinos Sin Fronteras and Derechos Humanos, will measure the health risks -- including stress -- of border residents and workers to determine whether their living and working conditions are causing adverse health effects.
"Those of us who were awarded this grant have been working along the border for more than 20 years," said Dr. Meister, principal investigator of the study. "Over the last several years, we have seen increasing militarization and a growth in the climate of fear. We have heard from colleagues from health clinics and community health centers that parents aren't bringing children in for immunizations. We have reason to believe that many farm workers who are legal residents of border communities are avoiding health care and other social services because they're afraid of being harassed or they have family members who are not legal residents and they're afraid of what might happen to them. We haven't yet documented that these incidents are going on, but there's good enough reason to justify a pilot study."
In the study, interviewers from Campesinos Sin Fronteras will talk to both legal and undocumented people from three border communities: Somerton, Gadsden and San Luis. The confidential survey will identify the current health status of the farm workers in the community and document any charges of alleged abuse or harassment. Those who report abuse could be referred to legal assistance, Dr. Meister said. In one part of the study, answers given by border-area farm workers will be compared to those given by Northern California-area and other farm workers to determine whether the health behavior and overall health in the two areas significantly differ.
After the study is completed, the project team plans to hold community meetings and focus groups to discuss the results with residents and give them the opportunity to offer input. The findings from the pilot study will contribute to a health-risk profile of border-area farm workers and the development of policy initiatives, as appropriate. Dr. Meister expects to complete the study by July 2008.
"All of us in public health are engaged in politics - the politics of health - every day," Dr. Meister said. "For example, hundreds of border-crossers are dying in the desert every year. If any other group of people were dying in those numbers in Southern Arizona, we would have declared an epidemic emergency long ago and done something about it. But we haven't done anything effective or meaningful, really, and that's a political, as well as a public health, issue - and a human tragedy."
Established by the Arizona Board of Regents in January 2000, The University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health is the only accredited college of public health in the 12-state Mountain/Pacific region. The UA Zuckerman College of Public Health's mission is to promote the health of individuals and communities with a special emphasis on diverse populations and the Southwest.