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Latino Doctor in Fresno Provides a Medical Sanctuary for Migrant Farm Workers

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Armed with two Central Valley medical clinics, Dr. J. Luis Bautista provides often free medical services to undocumented immigrants working the crop farms in Fresno.

Bautista understands that many farm workers still lack the transportation, money or time off from work to treat injuries, let alone seek preventive medical care. Plus, there is the heightened fear that by seeking medical treatment they might be exposed to federal immigration authorities.

Bautista’s two clinics provide a haven for immigrants burdened by these concerns. Patients are never asked about their immigration status, and the staff has set up protocols in case the offices are raided by immigration authorities.

Bautista’s clinics are on guard against U.S. immigration officials, known in this community as la migra.

Law enforcement officials requesting records are asked for a warrant, and staff members are on the lookout for intruders. “By the time any ICE officers got inside the office,” Bautista said, “we’d have people hiding in the restrooms.”

“I pledged in medical school to help these people in the farm fields,” said Bautista. “I knew how it felt not to have anything, not to have the money to go to a doctor.”

Now he treats them whether or not they have money — or legal documents. “We never say no to patients,” he said.

Bautista accepts as payment whatever his patients can offer: onions, handmade keychains, eggs, even live chickens.

President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to deport an estimated 11 million immigrants who have entered the U.S. illegally has fostered fear among farm workers nationwide. Terrified they’ll be caught in an immigration dragnet, farm laborers across the San Joaquin Valley without U.S. citizenship or official documents avoid driving to see a doctor or visit an emergency room.

“Many people don’t know what the government will do,” Bautista said. “They tell me that one reason they don’t go to the doctor is over fear they’ll be reported.”

“I feel secure with him,” said Julia Rojas, a 45-year-old undocumented mother of five who has picked oranges in Fresno County for two decades. “He’s one of us.”

The reason Bautista has a personal drive to help his local undocumented farmworkers is because he used to be in their position.

Born in Fresno, Bautista was deported with his parents when he was just 3 months old. He lived in Mazatlán, Mexico, until he returned to the U.S. at age 12. As a boy, he picked fruit alongside his parents and nine siblings in Ventura County. The family made $4,000 a year back then, a little over $30,000 in today’s dollars — rarely enough to spare for doctor’s visits.

In 1979, at age 24, he was picking lemons when his mother came running out to the fields with the letter announcing he’d been admitted to medical school. She’d always been big on education for her 10 children.

Bautista attended the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and did his residency in internal medicine at the University of Nevada-Reno.

Today, Bautista’s two sons are also doctors, as is his son-in-law, who was a farmworker before attending medical school and has joined the clinic. They all know that fear of deportation and how it can affect the workers’ health.