In the United States, one of the largest employers of immigrants, undocumented and otherwise, continues to be the agriculture industry. The industry needs vast numbers of labourers to bring in the harvest every year, especially for delicate crops that must be handled by hand; while cereals can be harvested with combines, things like berries still require labourious work in the fields because they are fragile and must be carefully inspected as they are picked. Many of these labourers are migrant workers, moving from farm to farm with the growing season, traveling across the United States in some cases to take advantage of changing weather and new opportunities.
They are typically underpaid, obliged to work long hours, and housed in unpleasant and sometimes actively dangerous conditions. They may lack access to water and shade while at work, and off duty, they may stay in trailers and other structures that lack potable water and other basic amenities. It is hard, thankless work, and the net outcome is cheap produce for US consumers, although even that is beginning to change thanks to economic conditions that are forcing prices up.
Along with some of those workers come children, who may have no place to call home. Those who are considered ‘old enough’ may work alongside their parents in the fields, and while many are underage, their ’employers’ enjoy formal legal protections allowing them to hire children. Those children work in the same dangerous conditions their parents do, handling heavy machinery, long hours, hot days, and more as they attempt to keep pace with adults and bring in as much money as possible. The Department of Labour has shown little inclination to protect children on farms, thanks to pressure from the agricultural industry.
In addition to being endangered in the fields, child farmworkers and children who travel with migrant workers but do not necessarily work face another issue: Most have limited access to education. For those who are at work during the day, there’s no time for education, and there are typically few resources for children who need education at nontraditional hours and in nontraditional formats, because it is assumed that such children do not exist. Culturally, the United States believes that children don’t work, and thus wouldn’t have conflicts with a conventional school schedule.
Part of this is also due to the fact that they are migratory, which can make it difficult to enroll children in school and allow them to finish out classes and coursework. When you are frequently shifting from place to place, it is hard to find a new school, enroll, move through placement exams, and sign up for the appropriate classes. Let alone adjust to an entirely new school environment, especially in the knowledge that you will probably have to move on in a few weeks or months. School is formatted for children with stable home lives who can commit to attending classes at one location for at least a semester, and ideally a year in many cases. It is not designed for people on the move; and homeschool programmes aren’t designed to track people who move between districts.
Children can also be at a disadvantage because of a language barrier that may be present for both them and their parents in some cases; they may have difficulty enrolling in school or understanding their right to access an education. Organisations focused on worker rights and educations have concentrated a lot of work in this area, reaching out to migrant workers and children to inform them about how to access education. Some have also established nontraditional schools and other resources for children to get an education, and to get a chance at accessing resources in higher education as well.
But all of these barriers ultimately come back around to the fundamental racism faced by migrant workers, who are considered less than human, along with their children. With the growing list of anti-immigrant laws in the United States, being a migrant worker has become increasingly dangerous, and education is the last thing on the minds of many parents and their children. In some regions, migrant children are specifically barred from accessing schools, or are effectively barred because of laws intended to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Afraid to go to school in case it outs them or their parents, or out of fear that they may be deported anyway despite having a legal right to be here, children stay home.
If they weren’t already working in the fields, they will be, because what else are they supposed to do? They’re being denied an education that might open up more opportunities for them. As they grow up, they join the vast movements of workers back and forth across the United States in search of work, and a break somewhere, a hope that a better opportunity may present itself and provide a chance for establishing a foothold, saving money, creating more chances for the next generation.
The lack of action from the US government on migrant children is troubling, especially since child labour was a key issue over 100 years ago in the reforms of the Industrial Revolution. Many citizens were outraged at reports on children in environments like mills, where they were forced to work long hours without access to education, fresh air, rest, and other basic rights. Many of those children were also immigrants, and bitter fighting was required to win them the right to go to school instead of being chained to the treadles of sewing machines. 100 years later, we are still dealing with the same problem; one of overall worker exploitation with child labour wrapped up in it, and we can’t seem to break free of this pattern.
Perhaps because we don’t really want to, because child labour is what helps to keep costs down, because many people in the United States believe these workers are not human, and that migrant labourers of any age do not deserve an education. Even as they tell people to ‘bootstrap’ if they want to be successful immigrants, they take the tools people could use to do that away from them, whether those tools are adult literacy classes or schools for migrant children.