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Today, we consider how generations of CA farmworkers have battled for water, and report from a hunger strike by undocumented migrants in Belgium.


Back in May, I spent a few weeks in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

Modesto, where I was staying, is surrounded by ranches and farms. Almonds are big business there, as are walnuts and other produce. It’s nestled in the middle of California’s long, dry Central Valley, which produces huge quantities of the nation’s food.

The city’s motto, emblazoned on an arch in the middle of town, is “water, wealth, contentment, health” – note the order of the words. It has a nice ring to it, but in truth, it doesn’t really apply to everyone, since if you don’t have access to that first resource, the rest are difficult to come by. 

California’s farm country has historically been less affluent and more conservative than other parts of the state. It’s also a place where immigrants from all over the globe (including my great-grandparents, from southern Italy) have migrated for decades to try their luck at farming. 

Walking around the city, it’s impossible to miss the irrigation canals that bring water to the ranches and farms on the outskirts. My grandmother used to swim in those canals when she wasn’t working in the dry yard, pitting stone fruit on her family farm. But the seemingly full canals bely an alarming truth – water is a scarce commodity in the region and always has been. And the cracked, dry soil and desiccated grass told a different story – that California was headed toward extreme drought. And then came the current heat wave that’s breaking all kinds of records.

There’s been a good deal of reporting on how these intense weather conditions will affect our food supply. But depending on where you sit, you may also have to let your fields go fallow because there’s not enough water to keep your crops alive. Or you may die from laboring in the fields in over 100°F temperatures to make enough money to pay for your rent and your electricity bills so you can keep your AC running. Farmworkers are dying of heat at much higher rates than the general population, the unseen victims of the climate crisis in the American West. 

“By the end of the shift, we are wet. Everything is wet with sweat. Sometimes my head starts to hurt, and I get dizzy,” Jesús Zúñiga, who picks tomatoes in the Central Valley, told the Guardian this week. “That is when I start to have doubts, so many doubts: Why are we even here?”

— Alexia Underwood (@Underwood_AD)

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✊ Why people are on hunger strike in Belgium

Asylum seekers in Belgium are on strike, and are demanding access to healthcare and other social services. [Yves Herman/Reuters]

Ibrahim, a 52-year-old from Algeria, hasn’t eaten in 46 days.

He’s one of more than 400 undocumented migrants in Brussels, Belgium, who are on hunger strike.

The protesters, currently camped out at three sites across the city, are demanding the right to live and work legally in Belgium. They also want clarification from the government about specific conditions that would allow them to receive legal residency.

Since the coronavirus first swept Europe in early 2020, many European residents have relied on social services, like universal health coverage and government furlough schemes, to help them weather the crisis.

But across the continent, up to 4.8 million people live and work without regular paperwork, rendering them mostly unable to access the social and medical services that have kept so many others afloat for the past year and a half.

In January, people began protesting against this policy, which led to the hunger strike underway today.

When Ibrahim (who asked that we not use his last name for his own protection) and I spoke at a makeshift sleeping quarters for protesters at a Brussels university, he told me that he had left Algeria to come to Europe in search of work and a better life, only to bounce around a continent that didn’t seem to want him. 

He briefly lived in Norway until his visa expired. That expired visa then landed him in an Italian jail as he tried to make his way back to Algeria. Out of work again in Algeria, he returned to Europe, this time settling in Belgium in 2018. 

Ibrahim has lived a precarious existence working “in the black,” or without the labor oversight and state benefits enjoyed by the rest of Belgium’s workforce. He found construction and cleaning jobs, but said his employers exploited him by requiring long hours for little pay. It’s an experience that undocumented people across the continent have described again and again.

But still, Ibrahim said, he made enough to just barely survive. Until the pandemic hit. 

“Right away, all the calls [from employers] stopped,” he told me. “People without papers, they all lost their work.”

Participating in the strike was similar to climbing a mountain, Ibrahim told me. “Every day you go higher, every time it’s getting very hard to abandon. How can I stop here? I have to continue,” he said. “I mean, what is the outcome? What is the end? Is it death? Maybe some people, they’re going to die here.”

A few feet away from where Ibrahim and I spoke, a 58-year-old woman named Naima from Morocco reclined on a mattress on the floor. For years, she worked illegally as a restaurant cook, until the pandemic hit and work abruptly dried up. The hunger strike has left her visibly, startlingly weak.

“It’s like a grave here,” she says of life “sans papiers” in Belgium. 

A problem bigger than Belgium

Belgium’s government has so far resisted the strikers’ demands. Back in February, Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration Sammy Mahdi tweeted that he would not succumb to protesters’ “blackmail.” And far-right movements in Belgium have shifted anti-migration sentiment so far into the mainstream that even centrist parties now stand in opposition to the hunger strikers.

It’s hard not to see the government’s reaction as part of a broader increase in anti-migrant (and sometimes overlapping anti-Muslim) sentiment across Europe. While asylum claims on the continent have dropped significantly since the start of the pandemic, that hasn’t stopped popular support for increasingly stringent, even militarized, border control operations.

Last month, a former deputy director of the EU’s border control agency, Frontex, lamented the agency’s move to arm its officers. Gil Arias Fernández also described Frontex as having “turned a blind eye” to violations of migrants’ human rights, an accusation repeatedly echoed in recent years by NGOs and migrants themselves at many points of entry into Europe. 

“In Europe, movements that use populism are growing at an alarming rate, and the fight against immigrants is one of those arguments. States are excessively prudent in not touching this issue,” he told the Guardian.

The hunger strikers are not without support, and public outrage may be growing. Last Wednesday, a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and extreme poverty penned an op-ed on behalf of the protesters, urging immediate solutions and suggesting the Belgian government was in violation of several rights guaranteed to migrants and refugees. The same day, representatives for the protesters expressed optimism after meeting with a government official to discuss the situation, although it’s unclear what progress had been made.  

Ibrahim, for his part, would prefer to be left out of the political battles.

“I don’t know if they have – the minister of immigration and other people within the [Belgian] government – some good calculation about elections, about who is going to be influential. This is their business, this is not my business,” he said. “But don’t use me as a scapegoat or something. I’m a human being. I want to live a decent life. That’s all.”

— Sarah Murphy Madia (@SmurphsTweets), from Brussels


Want to understand the Haitian assassination? Start here. [The Nation]

The American West is trapped in a fiery cycle. [The Guardian]

Finally putting private jets to civic use, Democrats flee Texas to thwart a voter suppression bill. [BBC]

One quick, easy way to help Cuba that’s not a catastrophic military intervention. [Jacobin]

Babies have places to be, OK? [The Cut]


Get in, we’re taking a speedboat through this grassy field. [YouTube]

Today’s newsletter is brought to you by Samantha Grasso, Sarah Leonard, Isra Rahman and Alexia Underwood. Send us your tips, questions and comments to

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