The Eastern Coachella Valley's Immigrant Communities 

The Coachella Valley’s rural location is bounded by several mountain ranges including the San Bernardino Mountains, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains, and the Little San Bernardino Mountains. In the Valley’s desert climate, temperatures can reach above 100 degrees throughout the year. The Valley’s climate is further exacerbated by high velocity winds and flash flooding. The Valley's tourist industry and much of the Coachella Valley has emerged despite the at times, harsh climate, attracting visitors to world-class sports tournaments and music festivals in popular destinations like Palm Springs and Palm Desert.
However southeast of the tourist destinations, communities like Indio, Thermal, Mecca, and Oasis lack the same economic benefits of tourism and rely primarily on agriculture as a form of work and income.  Residents in this southeast stretch of the Coachella Valley live in rural towns that go largely unnoticed. These areas also house most of Coachella Valley’s immigrant population. According to 2016 five-year community survey estimates, 50% of the population is immigrant (including the citizen and non-citizen immigrant population). The map below shows the concentration of Coachella Valley’s immigrant population in the east and southeast areas of the Valley.

A History of Agriculture

Natives and settlers have been attracted to the land in the Coachella Valley since the early 19th century. Water accessibility and ideal soil types help sustain agriculture in the Coachella Valley. Industrial agriculture in Coachella Valley began in the early 20th century with seasonal farming at a small scale. By 1950, an extensive irrigation project in the region transformed agriculture in the Valley. With more water available, agricultural production became possible year-round. At the same time, the Bracero Program opened the U.S.-Mexico border to Mexican men in order to meet the demand for agricultural labor. This migration helped shape today’s demographic makeup of the Coachella Valley. 
Today, agricultural production in Coachella Valley is a large-scale corporate industry. In 2016, the Coachella Valley’s agricultural crops were valued at $639 billion, making the Coachella Valley Riverside County’s most dominant agricultural district. Most of the Valley’s agricultural crops are being produced out of the East Coachella Valley. While the agricultural industry continues to thrive, the communities adjacent to the fields house some of Coachella Valley’s poorest communities—including the migrant farm workers that shoulder this lucrative industry.

The Eastern Coachella Valley

Coachella Valley’s east and southeast residents face severe economic hardship. In these areas, the percent of residents at or below the 100% federal poverty line range from 30% to almost 50%. For example, almost half (48%) of the residents in the southeast area above the Salton Sea, live at or below the 100% federal poverty line.
The map below shows the percentage of the population below 100% of the federal poverty line in the cities and unincorporated towns of the Valley, with darker areas showing a higher percentage of people in poverty. 

Immigrant Communities in the East 

The towns in darker colors on the map shown above with higher concentrations of poverty also have large immigrant communities (also referred to as “foreign-born communities” throughout the story). Regionally, these towns are located in the central and eastern parts of the Coachella Valley. In the central area, 24% of the population are foreign-born, while 32% of the population are foreign-born in the east. A detailed examination of the east illuminates the experiences of immigrant residents in the Valley.

In the east, 92% of the foreign-born population identify as Hispanic or Latino. The foreign-born population is less likely to have a college degree relative to the native population. In fact, 58% of the adult foreign-born population has had less than a high school education. The disparity is even larger for immigrants who are not citizens; 67% of non-U.S. citizens in the eastern region have less than a high school education.
Because of limited opportunities for education, immigrants in this region are often employed in low-wage industries and are likely to face limited economic mobility as a result. Approximately a quarter of the unauthorized immigrant population in the east work in the agricultural industry. Additionally, an estimated 40% of the unauthorized immigrant population work in natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations. Median wages are also lower for foreign-born workers, and even lower for those who don’t have U.S. citizenship. For instance, the median wage of a full-time unauthorized female worker was $13,225 less than the native female worker. Consequently, a higher percentage of the foreign-born population lives below 200% of the federal poverty line when compared to the native population. Recognizing these disparities is critical for creating appropriate interventions that ensure the social mobility and create economic opportunities for immigrant communities.  
The foreign-born population also faces a substantial language barrier. 71% of the foreign-born population (5 years or older) in the east reports that their ability to speak English is less than “very well” according to the American Community Survey. The inability to communicate has significant implications for the integration of immigrant communities into society. Limited English-speaking households often face barriers to resource access as they may have trouble communicating with social service and health care providers. Children in linguistically isolated households often underperform in math and reading when compared to their native-English speaking peers.

Access to Resources

While language barriers can limit access to social and healthcare services for many immigrant households, fewer government entities provide such services in the eastern Coachella Valley, as compared to the west. The Coachella Valley region encompasses nine cities and five unincorporated areas, almost all of which are located in the southeastern region. Unincorporated communities in the southeast, including Mecca, Oasis, Thermal, and Northshore, lack structured government, and in turn, lack official representation. Residents must rely on the County of Riverside (whose offices are over an hour away) to provide government programs and services, further exacerbating the inequities that exist between residents living in the unincorporated areas in the south east and those living in the towns and cities in the west. Residents living in unincorporated places lack basic public services, like public parks and public transportation. In fact, residents struggle to reach grocery stores and banks, which can be over 30 miles away for some residents. In this isolation, communities in the southeast continue to be invisible to the rest of the Coachella Valley.

Siguiendo Adelante

In partnership with the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation, Lift to Rise is working to address the disparate conditions facing Coachella Valley residents. To do so, Lift to Rise is conducting a landscape analysis to evaluate and improve the Valley’s current ecosystem. This is necessitated by the disconnectedness that currently exists between communities and service organizations. With the purpose of connecting communities to opportunities, the goal is to build an effective ecosystem for communities to thrive. Further, driven by research and data, Lift to Rise is working to find evidence-based solutions to achieve regional and social equity. Ultimately, this collaboration hopes to transform the Coachella Valley narrative to uplift the experiences of all Coachella Valley residents.
(photo credit: Noe Montes)

Araceli Palafox
Araceli Palafox is a Master in Public Policy student at USC Sol Price of Public Policy. She attended the University of California, Santa Cruz and transferred to Loyola Marymount University where she graduated in 2016 with a degree in Political Science and Chicana/o Studies. Her research interests include immigration policy, environmental justice, education policy, and social justice.

Agricultural Commissioner's Office. Coachella Valley Acreage and Agricultural Crop Report. County of Riverside, 2016.
Department of Planning. East Coachella Valley Area Plan. County of Riverside, 2014.
Du Bry, Travis. Immigrants, Settlers, and Laborers the Socioeconomic Transformation of a Farming Community. LFB Scholarly Pub. LLC, 2007.

Grove, Wayne A. “The Mexican Farm Labor Program, 1942-1964: Government-Administered Labor Market Insurance for Farmers.” Agricultural History, vol. 70, no. 2, 1996.

Slama, John.Yearly Temperature Summary. Desert Weather, September, 2018.

USC Price Center for Social Innovation. Lift to Rise Summary Brief. Lift to Rise, 2017.