The Forgotten Migrants: Children of Migrant Farmworkers

As we’re in the midst of National Farmworkers Awareness Week (NFAW) (March 25 - March 31, 2023), there is some attention being brought to the daily reality of many migrant farmworkers and the injustices and abuses that they face. However, migrant farmworker children are equally present but largely invisible, lacking a mechanism to speak out. Serious and continuous problems affect this extremely vulnerable population, not the least of which is education. 

While I do not want to downplay the struggles – often rooted in racism – that farmworkers as a whole have endured for decades, I want to focus on the children of migrant farmworkers – often also farmworkers themselves – for whom the problems are more than just a small part of their lives, they’re issues that have life-long effects. It’s a tragic system that, sadly, many of us are complicit in. The impacts are going unaddressed because these children are seen as an insignificant afterthought, in a marginalized population that is seen as an afterthought. The unfortunate reality is that these children’s positions as young people leave few dedicated resources that they can utilize. The children in the fields | Students on the Move | APM Reports 

A common problem is children having no other option but to work in order to pay for the basic needs of themselves and their families. This builds off of the overall problem of staggeringly low wages for farmworkers, especially workers who are undocumented or non-citizens, and even more so children. By working from as young as elementary school age –  9 in Oregon for example State Child Labor Laws Applicable to Agricultural Employment – migrant children are placed at a disadvantage starting in their formative years; working in unsafe conditions in fields and facilities when they should be in classrooms. An estimated “400,000 - 500,000” children have this as their daily reality. Children who are not old enough to open a bank account by themselves are allowed to work in conditions that for fully-grown adults are not just taxing, but hazardous. From the fields to the classroom: Inside the lives of US agriculture's youngest workers

Migrant farmworkers’ children are exponentially less likely (“1 out of 5000”) to graduate from high school and virtually non-existent (“no case upon record”) in postsecondary education. The children in the fields | Students on the Move | APM Reports The issues begin with the very nature of migrant farmworkers: they are a mobile population. When families move to follow harvests, any school progress made is thrown out of sync. These kids have to regularly adapt to new school systems and education frameworks that vary from state to state and district to district. While organizations like the Migrant Education Program work to support and educate these mobile students, the hundreds of thousands of kids being served through a range of local, state, and federal systems means that migrant students do not get the attention they deserve and need, regularly needing to adapt to different curriculum, programs, and teachers. About | Migrant Education Program Celebrating Migrant and Seasonal Head Start and Immigrant Workers during Hispanic Heritage Month | CLASP

The existing programs like Head Start and the Migrant Education Program must be strengthened and treated as a vital part of the education system(s) in the United States so that migrant children can exercise the right to an education and not be disregarded because the issue is “challenging” or because it affects a population that is seen by those in positions of power and influence as disposable. I cannot stress enough the need for this to be spoken about and addressed on a federal level.

While it is often easy to take an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach to the food we eat, we can’t do that when not only adults, but children, primarily Latinx children, are working in precarious conditions, having their childhoods and the fundamental right to education stolen simply so farm owners and contractors can add more zeros to their bank accounts. 

In reference to a 2021 United Nations report by the then-Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Dr. Koumbou Boly Barry, “To ensure full respect for the right to education of migrants, the principles of the availability, accessibility, acceptability and adaptability of education must be considered and fulfilled interdependently in all aspects of the migrant’s educational journey in order to tackle the challenges migrants face in enjoying their right to education.” Right to Education 

It is important to conclude with this: I’m a college student in Minneapolis who’s never worked in a field or had to migrate for work. While I can study these issues, they are not my lived experiences. I encourage everyone to read the stories of migrant farmworkers and migrant farmworker children. Organizations like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Student Action with Farmworkers (SAF), the Migrant Education Program, the National Farm Worker Ministry and a number of other initiatives all broadcast stories of migrant workers and their families verbatim. Please, take some time to listen, read, and learn about what exactly is happening in the fields and in the classrooms nearby. I hope that not just during this National Farmworkers Awareness Week, but in the weeks, months, and years ahead, we will carefully consider this issue and reflect on what we can do to change it.

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