National Farmworker Awareness Week: Celebrating and Educating the Farmworker Child

The following is a guest blog by John Menditto, General Counsel and Director of Risk Management, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project.

For more than forty years, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project  has been celebrating and educating the farmworker child. What we have observed during these four decades of mission-driven work has remained remarkably consistent:

  • Farmworker parents deeply committed to the education of their young children;
  • Classroom teachers ready, willing, and able to prepare their young charges for success in the public school system;
  • School bus transportation staff with the skill and knowledge to safely navigate school buses down rural roads and into migrant labor camps to ensure children arrive at school on time;
  • Cooks able to prepare nutritious and delicious breakfasts and lunches for as many as 100 children each day; and
  • Collaborative partners who provide health, dental and nutritional services to help ensure that each child is able to do their best learning.

The consistency we have seen in our own program on the United States’ East Coast is a vision shared by Head Start agencies that serve farmworker families all across the nation. I have the privilege to work with many of these Head Start agencies through my Board service to the National Migrant & Seasonal Head Start Association and I can attest to the fact that the 30,000 farmworker children served through the Head Start program are receiving education and care of the highest quality.

But threats abound for farmworker families. Large agribusinesses and small family farmers have taken advantage of the agricultural temporary guestworker program (also known as the H-2A program) to displace farmworker parents working in the fields. Farmworker parents like Irma M. of Okeechobee, Florida, have shared with us that their employer now provides the best opportunities to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables to H-2A guestworkers. According to Irma, her employer has explained that he’s required by the H-2A guestworker program to keep his guestworkers busy, so her opportunities to work are limited to the months during the peak harvest season.

Other farmworker parents like William P. of Wauchula, Florida, have shared that they are unable to be involved in the Head Start program in the way they would like because they cannot afford to miss work for fear of appearing less dedicated than the temporary guestworkers who they work alongside. Temporary H-2A guestworkers leave their families behind when they come to the United States – they reside in the United States for one purpose: to work. This, of course, can be a boon to the agriculture industry, but it’s a bust for the farmworker parent who must choose between attending a Head Start parent engagement activity or his or her job working in the fields.

The other threat facing farmworker families is the threat of family separation. Farmworker parents came to the United States with the same hopes and dreams of all immigrants – but many of these farmworkers brought their hopes and dreams on the only path available to them: one that was not sanctioned by the United States government. As a result of our broken immigration system, thousands of farmworker parents entrust their United States citizen children to our care and head to their work in the fields, carrying with them the fear that this could be the day they were separated from their young children. Despite these looming threats, farmworker parents persevere. The farmworkers that I know tend to be my most generous and most gracious of friends. They are willing to take great risks and make great sacrifices so that their children will have opportunities in life that were never available to the farmworker. Lazaro S., a farmworker parent who migrates each year from Plant City, Florida to Faison, North Carolina, explained his motivation and the importance of education:

“It’s important for children to be able to learn, because they are just starting to grow. And we don’t want them to end up like us because we haven’t learned anything since we were very little. If children can start learning when they are little . . . that is the future of this country”

During National Farmworker Awareness Week, we celebrate farmworkers like Lazaro, Irma, and William, and we celebrate their young children: the future of this country.