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Fires Highlight Safety Needs of Migrant Workers

San Diego County is home to tens of thousands of immigrant workers, both legal and undocumented. Their homes and workplaces may be at risk, but poor access to services and fear of immigration authorities at evacuation centers may keep some from seeking shelter.

Workers in California's lucrative agriculture industry are among those in limbo.

Jesus Gomez from Oaxaca was at his job at a nursery in San Diego's North County when the Witch fire roared in from the east. His crew kept working while wind whipped smoke and ash in their eyes.

"They gave us masks, but still, our eyes were filling with dirt and ashes. So, we keep working, but then the police came in," Gomez says.

He says his boss told him to stop working only after law enforcement gave the mandatory evacuation order. He's been out of work since, though he may be an exception.

Personal Safety Versus Employment

At the tomato field across the street and at other fields too close for comfort to the fires, many laborers have not missed a day tending the crops.

Alberto Lozano of the Mexican Consulate in San Diego says he's concerned that the workers care more about their jobs than their personal safety.

"They could smell the smoke and they could see the light of the fire. But since their boss didn't order them to leave, they were thinking they were just saving their jobs," Lozano says.

San Diego's tomato business is worth about $88 million annually. The nursery business is worth $1 billion. About 1,500 of the thousands of immigrant workers who tend those crops live in the canyons among the county's toniest suburbs.

Most of the homes in those suburbs were evacuated earlier this week, when residents received word from emergency services providers that it was time go. Not so for the canyon dwellers.

"There's no reverse 9-1-1 for them," says immigrants rights activist Enrique Morones.

Morones says many stayed, figuring they could outrun the flames. Other illegal immigrants who actually had homes were reticent to go to shelters. He says they're used to living in the shadows and are afraid to register at evacuation centers.

Border Patrol Aiding Law Enforcement

Shortly after flames began consuming wide swaths of San Diego County, rumors that federal officials were conducting immigration raids also spread across the county.

The Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement are lending 200 officers to law enforcement efforts during the fire.

Just their presence in the streets ignites people's fear.

Both agencies say, however, that immigration status is not their primary concern in San Diego right now.

Crossings Now 'A Foolish Risk'

There's also word that smugglers are telling people that now is the time to cross the border illegally from Mexico — to take advantage of the chaos.

"Anybody who is thinking of crossing the border with fires raging is taking an exceptionally foolish risk," says Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff. He issued a stern warning when he visited San Diego this week.

"Being in the area of the border now with an unpredictable fire is a life-threatening mistake," he said.

Border Patrol reports that it has arrested 200 people trying to cross illegally in the fire area since Monday. Six remain hospitalized with burns and one is in critical condition.

Late Thursday night, Border Patrol agents on routine patrol found four charred bodies in a wooded area near Barrett Junction, just east of San Diego and along the Mexican border, agency spokeswoman Gloria Chavez said. Authorities said it was not immediately certain whether the wildfire caused their deaths, according to The Associated Press.

Amy Isackson reports from member station KPBS.

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Amy Isackson