Op/Ed: What do American farmers and asylum detainees have in common? Suicide.

By Sandra Malamed R.N., M.S., Special To The Times

Sandra Malamed R.N., M.S.

Deaths of despair do not discriminate.  Rising numbers of deaths by suicide have been reported in American farmers. The prevalence of suicide deaths of migrants in detention is equally troubling.  Commonalities of suicide risk factors are easily found in the two groups.

According to the CDC, suicide rates in American farmers and rural populations are higher than in urban areas. These Americans share similar challenges with migrants headed north seeking asylum.

Many farmers experience the despair and desperation of prolonged poverty prevalent in some migrant populations.  They remain poor despite hard work. Poverty is a psycho-social stressor that can lead to significant mental health issues. This compounded by a lack of adequate mental health care and/or the stigma of getting it. American farmers face undue pressure generated by the lack of control over crop prices, the weather, and a scarcity of good laborers.

The presence of crushing debt further escalates stress levels.  Just this week CNN reported a 20% increase in “family farmer” bankruptcies for 2019. Pennsylvania has the dishonor of being listed among the top 10 states for farm bankruptcy.

Asylum-seekers languish in detention. They have committed no crime. They came here desperate to find refuge. Long and virtually hopeless stays in dehumanizing, unsanitary, and down-right depressing prison-like facilities provide the perfect conditions for mental health deterioration.

Asylum seekers enter the system having fled insurmountable poverty and violence.  They arrive having risked their lives on a long and arduous journey. Being handed a mylar sheet and escorted into a crowded cell must be a soul-crushing experience. When their expectation was to find the fantasy of America.

Multiple agencies are contracted to house and maintain the lives of these desperate travelers. Over-sight of detention facilities is notoriously lacking.  At present, only ICE is required to publicly release information about the deaths of detainees in their custody. The ICE website details the suicide deaths of detainees.  However, it is not known how many have occurred in other types of detention facilities as they are not required to publicly report any deaths.

Rural Americans may find some help via expanded Medicaid, subsidies, and new programs to combat “Farm Stress.” AgrABILTY PA offers farmers information and resources for stress management and suicide prevention on their website.

Compassionate champions in Congress give hope to asylum seekers.  Members such as PA Senator Bob Casey and Representative Chrissy Houlahan continue to fight for humane solutions to difficult immigration disputes.

Reinstating the highly successful Family Case Management Program (FCMP) is one solution. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission: “FCMP compliance had an average of 99 percent for ICE check-ins and appointments, as well as 100 percent attendance at court hearings. The program offered an effective system for managing asylum seekers at a fraction (4%) of the cost of detention. The cost of the program for a family unit over 20 days was a mere $760 compared to $19,200 in an ICE family detention center.” This was without any detriment to the moral conscience of Americans.

Unfortunately, the FCMP was promptly discontinued by the Trump Administration in favor of high-cost, highly restrictive detention camps. Budget-conscious politicians such as Senator Pat Toomey might be interested in investigating the success of the program and champion its reinstatement as a winning budget-friendly initiative. That idea may have potential for bipartisan support.

Reference Links:

CDC statement on Farmer suicide rates: https://talkbusiness.net/2019/05/cdc-farm-stress-suicides-a-rising-rural-health-concern/

Farm bankruptcy rate rises 20%: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/30/politics/farm-bankruptcies-trump-aid/index.html

PA in top 10 of US farm bankruptcies: https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/2019-11-04/states-with-the-most-farm-bankruptcies

Ice Detainee Death Reports: https://www.ice.gov/death-detainee-report

AgrABILITY PA Stress reduction resources: https://agrabilitypa.org/resources/health-wellness/

Women’s Refugee Commission statement on Family Case Management Program: https://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/rights/resources/1807-the-family-case-management-program-why-case-management-can-and-must-be-part-of-the-us-approach-to-immigration

Sandra Malamed a retired advance-practice nurse, artist, and activist living in West Vincent

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  1. Susan D Miner says:

    Our current President and Administration are constantly boasting their policies are creating a “strong economy!”, “low unemployment!”, and “keep out terrorists, gangs and drugs”. These claims are like a blind man touching an elephant’s tail and describing the animal as being “thin and tough like a rope” . . . partly true but grossly incomplete and inaccurate. In the case of small American farmers and the growing population of desperate asylum-seekers, this piece illustrates just SOME of the very ugly underbelly and dreadful human toll these same policies are taking in our country. Knowledge is power, and knowledge will in form my VOTE. I am grateful to this author and this newspaper for educating me.

  2. Andrea Cauble says:

    Excellent article drawing attention to the common elements in our farming communities and those from other nations seeking refuge. Both groups face poverty/financial ruin despite their hard work or effort, then suffer despair over forces beyond the control of the average person. Thanks for references, links as well
    Thanks to the Chesco Times for posting.

  3. Lynn Strauss says:

    Very well written and interesting way to look at two populations that seem unrelated but are connected.
    Immigration is what built America. Farmers are what feed America.
    Farmers depend on migrants to work on the farms.

    Thanks to Senator Casey and Congresswomen Houlahan for working to help both populations though thoughtful legislation and advocacy.

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