• Sat. Mar 6th, 2021

From the fields to the classroom: Inside the lives of U.S. agriculture’s youngest workers

Migrant and seasonal child laborers run the risk of being overlooked by the education system, several educators told NBC News. However, there are also people at the state and federal level working to counter this cycle.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Migrant Education has several programs aimed at helping migratory child workers and children of migrant workers attend and finish grade school, high school and college. The Migrant Education Program (MEP) provides education assistance for migrant children ages 3 through 21, and the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) provides financial assistance for undergraduates. They were founded to help child laborers like the Aguilars overcome any barriers standing in the way of their education.

“Imagine moving from one state to another not knowing a soul, not knowing where to go to find resources for your child,” said Laura Alvarez, director of MEP for the state of Arizona. “That’s where we come in. It’s an unsettling thought to think what would happen if our program was not in place.”

In Arizona, where agriculture is a $23 billion industry, an estimated 10,000 students are eligible for the Migrant Education Program, according to DOE data. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Alvarez’s team of educators would travel the fields to interview agricultural workers and identify children who could benefit from the resources provided by the program, even providing hearing aids and glasses when needed — any “tools to help them be successful in school,” said Alvarez.

Telemundo’s Nicole Suárez speaks with a melon field foreman on a farm along the Arizona/California border.Christine Romo / NBC News
The Crane Great Beginnings Preschool in Yuma, Ariz., is just one school across Arizona that participates in the U.S. Department of Education’s Migrant Education Program, a nationwide program which provides educational assistance to migrant children.Christine Romo / NBC News

Another challenge brought on by COVID-19 has been ensuring that migrant children have access to computers and Wi-Fi during a time when some Arizona schools have decided to start off the school year online.

“It is definitely a concern that for migratory children and our students in those communities, that access to internet is a challenge,” said Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction. “Sometimes it’s not so much an issue of access to the laptop, but then when the laptop is brought into the home, then there’s likely no internet connection. So you can’t use it as much for that learning experience.”

At places like PPEP TEC High Schools, a series of charter schools focused on catering to vulnerable populations like homeless and migrant children, computers and personal hotspots have been distributed to households in need of connectivity. In rare circumstances, PPEP TEC has also allowed for students like the Aguilar sisters to study around a busy growing season, sending them paper packets of homework in lieu of daily instruction.

The girls say juggling work and school can be hard, but that they continue to put a priority on their education so that they can become “a big person in life.” For Jimena that means becoming a surgeon and for Leslie, a pediatrician. Both are U.S. citizens, born in the U.S.

JB Rutagarama / NBC News

The sisters’ current schedule only requires them to attend school on Fridays, but even then, free time is almost nonexistent.

When work is stable, the girls wait in parking lots at 4:30 a.m. to travel to worksites an hour and a half away. The girls pick weeds from melon patches for eight hours and then reboard the buses. They nap or do homework on the ride home. At 4 p.m, finally home from work, they climb into their beds and try to get some sleep.

But by 10 p.m. they’re up again, this time to finish their assigned homework. They study through the night until 3 a.m., when it’s time to head back to the parking lot once again.

“It’s kind of hard, but at the same time, it’s good, because that way we’re in school,” Jimena Aguilar said. “And then we’re in work, and we don’t miss a day at work.”

As the eldest of five children, Jimena has more responsibility than most, serving as her siblings’ caretaker. The sisters also financially support their parents who they say were deported to Mexico almost two years ago and recently, lost their jobs due to COVID.