Elderly Undocumented Mexican Migrant Farm Workers


The issue of immigration is as old as America. With the recent presidential election, the conversation around undocumented migrants has come once again at the forefront of the national discourse (Green, 2016). This paper will analyze the lives of elderly undocumented migrant farm workers of Mexican origins. The researcher will describe the population and give a short historical context. Next, Erikson's stage theory and Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory will be applied to this population to see how these theories do or do not fit the elderly farm workers population. The researcher will then explore the micro, mezzo and macro needs of this population; and, lastly, argue for specific advocacy to support this population.

Group Description

Demographic and Socio Economics. The National Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS) states that between 48% and 70% of the total farm workers in the United States are undocumented (Farmworker Justice, 2014), and of the three million migrant farm workers, between 68% and 95% come from Mexico alone (Farmworker Justice, 2014; National Center Farmworker Health, 2012). Migrant males are in majority with 78%, while 22% are females.

About 60% are married, with over 80% of their partners living in the U.S., 30% of migrant farm workers are single, and the remaining are widowed or divorced (Farmworker Justice, 2014; NCFH, 2012). The majority of farm workers have families, and have incomes of $12,500 to

$14,999 while families of four have incomes between $17,500 to $19,999 (NCFH, 2012). The greater number of migrants found work through family members or friends (NCFH, 2012), demonstrating the importance of familismo and community for Latinos (Soto-Fulp, & DelCampo, 1994) the average farm worker had completed middle school.

More than half of all migrant workers have been in the States for more than ten year, and 27% for more than fifteen years (Farmworker Justice, 2014); in a year, they spend on average 31 weeks working on farms, while 26% will spend the entire year there (NCFH, 2012). 12% of the total undocumented migrant farm workers are above 55 years of age (Farmworker Justice, 2014), and the Pew Research Center states that 150,000 are over 65 years old although this number is bound to increase in the coming years (Wessler, 2014).

Historical Overview. During World War II, the United States was in need of a agricultural labor force and stipulated with Mexico the Bracero Accord, which brought hundreds of thousands of Mexican national into the States on temporary, seasonal and year-long visas. (Durand, Massey, & Pren, 2016). A decade after the war had ended, with increasing immigration and in an atmosphere of emerging McCarthyism (Massey, Pren, 2012), the U.S. initiated “Operation Wetback” which brought the armed militarization of the Mexican border. During the 1960’s, in an era of Civil and anti-racial rights, the United States changed its immigration laws with the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, to allow equal quotas, capped at 20,000 per country, of immigrants into the U.S. and reverse the racially-based exclusivity of U.S. immigration that until that point favored northern European immigrants. In the same year, the government terminated the Bracero Program, considering it to be exploitative and racist (Massey, Pren, 2012). This has a backlash effect on Mexican immigration into the United States, as the need for farm work was still very high. The Mexican currency emergency of 1982 brought a steady increase in Mexican illegal immigration into the United States, accompanied by a negative rhetoric which labelled the undocumented migrants as “illegal”, “lawbreakers”, “criminals” and “invading aliens”. We can note here that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric against immigrants, and Mexicans in particular, has been seen in North America before, even as early 1911 (Green, 2016), and makes use of common fears that hook the psyche of the populus by exploiting racially based stereotypes.

The socio-political events of the past twenty years, such as the Oklahoma bombings and the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and the consequent legislations that emerged, such as the PATRIOT Act (Massey, Pren, 2012), have moved the U.S. government to increase its protective stance against “alien invasions”, putting ulterior strains on the already precarious and economically and legally vulnerable lives of undocumented mexican migrants (Massey, Pren, 2012). According to Wessler’s research (2014), elderly Mexican migrants that have been in the States for years or decades, don’t have much interest in returning to their origin country, as there is often no family or community waiting for them any longer.

This quote from Massey and Pren (2012) speaks to the core concern facing this population: “Mexican immigrants thus find themselves in the difficult situation of being cut off from their homeland by a militarized border while being increasingly marginalized in the United States by rising hostility, official exclusion, and heightened repression” (p. 15).

Theoretical Application

Bio-PsychoSocial Domains of Dominant Group. About 44% of white older adults 65 years old and up report their health to be in very good standing (USDHHS, 2016). The majority additionally reports having either one or more of the following: arthritis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension (USDHHS, 2016). Elderly folks may experience a variety of cognitive difficulties, mood changes, and personality shifts, often related to the environmental and physical changes that they are undergoing (APA, 2014). Women tend to live longer than men (Administration on Aging, 2011), and the survivors may experience symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts (APA, 2014). Financial insecurity can additionally stress the elderly individual who may find themselves uncertain in those who are raising their grandchildren (Fuller-Thompson & Minkler, 2003).

Socio-culturally, slightly less than 50% of all seniors think of themselves in really good financial terms, which leads them to retire in great numbers in retirement homes (Gebeloff, 2015).

89% of white elderly americans have completed high school, and many, about 27% have higher education (USDHHS, 2016)

Erikson, Social Cognitive Theory and developmental tasks

Erik Erikson identified in the elderly a distinct stage that one faces: Late Adulthood, 65 years - death. The transition from one stage to the other is usually constellated by a rite of passage, a crisis within the individual world and psyche, that bring one either successfully graduate to the next stage and integrate its lesson, or be stunted and wounded by the stage’s difficulty (Harwood, Miller, & Vasta, 2008)

Late Adulthood, Erikson’s final stage, invites one to embody a sense of maturity. The struggle emerges between what two qualities Erikson identified: Integrity vs. Despair. The elderly person, having crossed the middle half of life and nearing death, is tasked with the review of their own life and with the acceptance of all that one has and has not been able to accomplish and reach a sense of personal fulfillment (Harwood, Miller, & Vasta, 2008). In this stage the elderly person passes on the wisdom they have gained throughout their life, as well as material goods in service to the future generations. Failure of this stage would be characterized by feelings of bitterness, anger and disgust (Psychology Notes HQ, 2013).

This later stage of life can be also approached from the perspective of Social Cognitive Theory. This theory posits that behavior is shaped by a variety of factors, such as “cognition, affect, biological events, and the environment” (Stallones, Acosta, Sample, Bigelow, & Rosales, 2009, pg. 220), and that being sure of one’s ability to perform and complete a task is an essential ingredients for confidence, well-being, and sense of accomplishment. The connection between well-being and late adulthood seems clear through these lense: the elderly person’s ability to perform tasks that they use to accomplish in younger age, particularly physically, is greatly diminished in older folks, who are, in consequence, at risk of feeling less capable which may potentially lead to depression and risk of suicide (Hovey, & Magaña, 2002).

Comparisons between theories and elderly migrants

Mexican migrant farm workers are generally exposed to high levels of stressors during their time in the United States: they are often excluded and discriminated against by the larger society, they are often hiding and living in small, overcrowded rooms, and they work low-wage jobs for most of their adult lives which are labor-intensive and ultimately take a toll on their health with compounded exposure to sprayed pesticides (Hovey, & Magaña, 2002). Social Cognitive Theory applied here demonstrates that when migrant farmworkers reach elderly age, may find themselves at a self-efficacy disadvantage compared to white-americans: they do not have any ability to retire, and have usually been nable to climb social and professional ladders and provide themselves with a financially secure life (Angel, 2003). Many have not learned to speak English, and their lower education status will not afford them to provide themselves safety in elder years (Angel, 2003).

Erikson’s Maturity stage may or may not be successfully achieved: research has found that Mexican migrant farm workers are at extraordinary risks for psychological harm. Depression has been found in 20% of the migrant worker population, although statistics drop considerably in those individuals that have been able to find support in community (Angel, 2003). Some migrants may fall into despair when contemplating their life; some elderly fallen ill may not be able to reunite with their family who still lives in Mexico (Ortega, 2014), and consequently not be able to see loved ones, and pass on the wisdom gathered in their lifetime. Others may have been able to integrate into a community, reunite with their families in the States, and may have no desire in older age to return to Mexico (Wessler, 2014). In this case, it is more likely that the presence of community and family support may provide the opportunity to benevolently reflect on their life, and successfully achieve a healthy level of what Erikson considered integrity and wisdom.

Needs and Interventions

As described above, undocumented elderly face a variety of psycho-physical and societal challenges. For example, in comparison to 15% of the U.S. who doesn’t have health insurance, 65% of undocumented Mexican have no health coverage (Sommers,2013).

Micro interventions. According to the literature, there is currently very minimal options to support the mental health of migrant farm workers. Researchers have suggested a mix of distribution of mental health and prevention literature, offering educational workshops, and providing group support directly at the camps, or in the community where the elderly may find themselves (Hovey, & Magaña, 2002). The organization and facilitation of culturally sensitive support groups could be something that social workers may be especially apt for providing, given their social justice training.

Mezzo Interventions. At the community level, the social worker may find himself becoming a link between the elderly and a variety of agencies that provide free counseling, community and legal services to the Spanish-speaking population, regardless of documentation status. In Denver, there are two organization doing this important work: Servizio De La Raza, and Mi Casa.

Macro Interventions. At the structural, organizational and national levels, the issue to address are many, as illustrated above. The topic of border crossing, “illegal” immigration and a national dialogue that demonizes migrant workers has reached the highest level of government (Green, 2016). As social worker, it is important to work with Sanctuary cities such as Denver and Boulder in advocating for justice and fair treatments of those who are vulnerable because of their lack of documentation, their health status, and their age. Social Workers must become agents of change in the construction of new policies that protect those that are most vulnerable. Other organizations that are doing national work for the rights of farmworkers, including those now elderly, are the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and Farmworker Justice.


The issues of undocumented elderly folks reflect the issues of undocumented farm workers and Latinos at large. As illustrated in the earlier interventions, the detailed plan of this social worker would be to connect with the Denver-based organizations Servizio De La Raza, and Mi Casa, and www.Colorado FarmWorkers.org, a local organization which offers legal, policy and educational support to this cause. The social worker would proceed in identifying where his skills are best needed: likely beginning with providing counseling and advocacy services through Servizio, which specifically offers anti-oppression counseling tailored to Latino communities.

This researcher would inquire with the local agencies, about best practices to contact and reach elderly migrant farm workers living in the Denver Metro area. He would need to learn Spanish and work with an interpreter to establish communication with the elderly. The service provided would be tailored to the population needs, which may differ from one case to the other.

According to the Pew Research Center, the Denver Metro area is home to over 130,000 undocumented immigrants (Passel, & Cohn,2017).

For the elderly needing food assistance, Catholic Charities in Denver could provide to the needy, and for health care Pecos Clinic Clinica Campesina offers behavioral, dental and medical services undocumented migrants. At the national level, partnering with The Hasting Center project “Undocumented Immigrants and Health Care Access in the United States” would start to address the larger systemic issues around health care and the undocumented elderly.


The author of this paper had the fortune to discuss these issues with two local undocumented immigrants and ask their opinion regarding the life of elderly migrant farm workers. One of the interviewees used to be a migrant farm worker and campesino himself. After receiving permission to reproduce our discussion, they shared with me that usually elderly farm workers have two options: if they run out of money, they will return to Mexico via bus, or, they will change work to something less physically demanding, such as janitorial work in schools or construction sites, pushing food carts, or washing dishes in restaurants.

We have analyzed the demographics and historical realities of the Mexican migrant farm worker population living in the United States undocumented. We have focused on the struggles of the elderly, comparing the discriminating lived-experience of the migrants, with that of the elderly white population. We have seen how the experience of the undocumented elderly fits in Erikson’s maturity stage, and how it is easy for them to fall prey to depression and despair.

Ultimately we have explored the impacts the current political rhetoric has had on the well being of elderly migrants, and addressed the micro, mezzo and macro changes that need to be implemented in the local community of Denver to begin mending the wounds of pain.


Administration on Aging. (2011). Minority aging. Retrieved from http:// www.aoa.gov/aoaroot/aging_statistics/minority_aging/Index.aspx

Angel, J. L. (2003). Devolution and the social welfare of elderly immigrants: Who will bear the burden?. Public administration review, 63(1), 79-89.

American Psychological Association. (2014, January). Guidelines for Psychological for Practice with Older Adults. Retrieved May 06, 2017, from http://www.apa.org/practice/guidelines/older-adults.aspx

Durand, J., Massey, D. S., & Pren, K. A. (2016). Double disadvantage: Unauthorized Mexicans in the US labor market. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 666(1), 78-90.

Farmworker Justice (2014). Selected Statistics on Farmworkers. Retrieved May 6, 2017, from https://www.farmworkerjustice.org/sites/default/files/NAWS%20data%20factsht%201-1


Fuller-Thomson, E., & Minkler, M. (2003). Housing issues and realities facing grandparent caregivers who are renters. The Gerontologist, 43(1), 92–98. doi:10.1093/geront/43.1.92

Gebeloff, D. S. (2015, June 14). America's Seniors Find Middle-Class 'Sweet Spot'

Fabio Fina