The borderlands between the United States and Mexico are home to numerous Mexican and Central American rural communities, with many members living in poverty and frustrated by limited access to basic resources.
A study on inequalities and health among foreign-born Latinos in rural borderland communities, led by a researcher at the University of California, Riverside, has found that this population is vulnerable to high stress that negatively impacts its mental and physical health.
"While the research focused on Latino immigrants in Southern California, our findings tell us a lot about structural level factors and daily life events and chronic strain that create stress for minorities and immigrants in rural communities," said Ann Cheney.
"Factors outside Latino immigrants' control negatively affect their health. Some of these factors are historically based, such as the subjugation of Mexicans in the eastern Coachella Valley, whereas others are because of current immigration and policing practices and unfair living and working conditions."
The findings, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, have implications for immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border as well as immigrant populations in rural America. They also have implications for nonprofit organizations and public healthcare systems.
"While the structural factors which are historically rooted may differ per racial or ethnic group, the lack of healthcare access and inequalities present in their living and working environments are likely similar across immigrant communities in rural America," Cheney said.
"These communities are often characterized by substandard housing, poor infrastructure, unsanitary conditions, and unsafe public drinking water. In the U.S., rural health is an often-overlooked health disparity."
"Over time, these daily and chronic strains affect control over life and self-worth, contributing to poor mental and physical health conditions," Cheney said. The research paper calls for local community action, healthcare policy change, and further in-depth research on structural inequalities in health among foreign-born Latinos.
"Nonprofits, healthcare systems, policymakers and researchers need to take action and address structural-level inequality in health," Cheney said. "The health of this Latino population is incredibly important—they are the backbone of the American food system. The eastern Coachella Valley, one of the richest agricultural areas of the world, alone contributes more than $600 million in agricultural production to our economy."
The paper notes that the undocumented status of many foreign-born Latinos limits their access to public services such as healthcare and stable employment. It also makes them vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation, ultimately affecting their health and wellbeing by increasing blood pressure, cholesterol levels, hypertension, and adipose tissue.
Cheney and her team used a participatory research approach to engage the community. The approach helped the team develop rapport and long-term partnerships with leaders and farmworkers in the eastern Coachella Valley.
The researchers conducted informal interviews with 18 stakeholders, including community leaders, service providers, and farmworkers and advocates. They spoke to a community review board with nine stakeholders; and three focus groups with a total of 25 farmworkers and advocates. The majority of the participants were women.
"Our study gives voice to the voiceless in an effort to influence public understandings of the immigrant experience and provides evidence that can inform public health and immigration policy change," Cheney said. "We show how inequalities across multiple social systems position foreign-born Latinos in low social status in the U.S. rendering them vulnerable to persistent and chronic strain that affect health and wellbeing."