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Girl Working in Stawberry Field, FSA, 1940
Politics and Economy:
On the Border
More on This Story:
Migrant Child Labor

In 2000 Human Rights Watch published FINGERS TO THE BONE: UNITED STATES FAILURE TO PROTECT CHILD FARMWORKERS. The critical report documented the health and educational risks faced by child laborers on America's farms. Estimates of the number of children working in agriculture range from 300,000 (The General Accounting Office) to 800,000 (United Farm Workers union).

Children who work on farms are governed by different rules than those in any other occupation. They can start work at age 12 if accompanied by a parent. The minimum employment age for non-agricultural work is 14. Child farm laborers can also work longer hours. Children who are 14 or older can work unlimited hours in the fields before or after school hours. Children who work in any other occupation are permitted to work only 3 hours per day while school is in session.

According to the General Accounting office more than 100,000 children and teens are injured on farms each year. In addition, such child farmworkers are exposed to pesticides at the same level as adults, although their risk may be higher, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A study by the National Migrant Resources Program found that migrant children have a higher rate of chronic disease (10.9% vs. 3% for the general population) and a death rate 1.6 times higher than other children.

The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs has found that half the youth who regularly perform farm work never graduate from high school. Many children, like those portrayed in NOW's "On the Border," leave school early and return late each year due to their family's work migration. In addition, recent estimates suggest that children who work in agriculture average 30 hours of labor per week — often during the school year. The federal government has several programs designed to provide academic and supportive services to the children of families who migrate.


Motivation Education & Training, Inc. (MET) is a private nonprofit organization funded by a variety of public and private grants and contracts. Each year Janie Alaniz asks program participants in her Texas program for teens 14 to 21 to reflect on their experience as migrants. Read some of their stories below:

Roxanne Villanueva, 18

My experiences as a migrant have been good and bad. Do not get me wrong on this. I love being a migrant, and let me explain to you why I do. When I was in seventh grade, I used to be a type of person that you would call a "rebel." I was not always respectful. I did not like a lot of people, and I would not do my work. Well, that year I finally turned thirteen, which meant I was qualified to work. Little did I know, that summer would change my life completely. It was like a whole new me. My work experience as a migrant that year was horrible; I disliked the fields, but learned to love it because it helped me understand that without an education in reality you have nothing.

Read the whole essay (PDF file)

Melissa Gonzalez, 18

From Chahuila to San Luis Potosi, all the way to Vallermoso to a small town called Caldwell, Texas my roots flow...Effort is something that we all learn at a very young age. I discovered it when I was only 10 years old. We had migrated to Minnesota and it was the first year I entered a field of labor. I learned that without our effort food would not be on the tables of many people in the U.S.

Read the whole essay (PDF file)

Norma Flores, 18

Each year, thousands of migrants travel through the United States in search of work in the fields in order to avoid a year of debts. Among the multitude of these farm workers is my family. We venture into a 3 day cross-country adventure — our destination: Williamsburg, Iowa. Although the trip is a strenuous and uncomfortable one, it is an experience that I have gone through every summer and fall of my life. Migrant work isn't an appealing job, and the pay is minimal. There are no benefits to protect you as you age and it's not as impressive as you would hope on a resume. The summers are filled with scorching suns overhead and fruitful fields below.

Read the whole essay (PDF file)

Guadalupe Reyna, 20

About fifteen years ago, my father was diagnosed with father was forced to stop working. At that point, my older sisters and brothers had to step in, they had stopped attending school regularly so they could work a couple of days to help support the family. Finally, my brothers and sisters dropped out of school completely, and started working full time in the fields...They worked from around five o'clock in the morning and come home around eight.

Read the whole essay (PDF file)

Brenda Lee Hernandez, 21

When I started high school was when things got tougher. All I would think about was to hurry up to get the credits I needed. It didn't take much time for me to realize that one of the major problems was trying to finish as many classes as I could before migrating so that it would give me the time to work and at the same time to get an education. There were always stacks of papers on my desk that needed to be finished.

Read the whole essay (PDF file)

Sources: U.S. Dept. of Labor, Migrant & Seasonal Farm Workers Program; FINGERS TO THE BONE: UNITED STATES FAILURE TO PROTECT CHILD FARMWORKERS ; Rural Migration News, UC Davis; United Farmworkers; "Modern Day Slavery," PALM BEACH POST Special Report; "In the Strawberry Fields," THE ATLANTIC ONLINE; Migrant Clinicians Network; National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2000; Health Problems among Migrant Farmworkers' Children in the U.S.

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