Homing in on the Harvest: COVID-19 & the Wary Wisdom of Migrant Children

This is the third in a series for IMM-Print, spotlighting migrant farmworkers in the U.S. amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo credit: Benedict Evans

Educators and students across the country are facing challenges they never saw coming. While a few discover they are suited for remote learning, most have had their worlds flipped over and pockets shaken out.

But for the hundreds of thousands of migrant farmworkers’ children in the U.S. whose daily norms were already worlds apart from their peers pre-pandemic, that shakeup has upended life in ways that could drastically shape their futures.

While politics and death tallies dominate our news feeds, there has, since lockdown, been a notable spike in child labor. In agriculture, where this occurs most, there are not only ceaseless hurdles in educating migrant children, but also a slew of life-threatening environmental factors.

But there’s Wifi in the warehouse.

Even providing aid has its complications. The Department of Health and Human Services stepped in earlier this year to provide internet hot spots throughout agricultural fields and in warehouses, supporting workers with COVID-19 information. However, this availability of WiFi comes with unintended consequences.

Often limited to poor connection, migrant students now learning remotely may be better equipped to access schoolwork on work sites than at home — or else risk falling behind, perpetuating a grim poverty cycle. In other scenarios, a little outdoor learning (in the right weather) is harmless — even beneficial. But time spent in harvest fields is hardly comparable to buckling down with an iPad in a suburban backyard.

Even spared from working, the very presence of children in the fields exposes them to harmful pesticides and close contact with potentially symptomatic adults who live, commute and work in close proximity. The many who do work are subject to the ever-present hazards of fieldwork.

Como un viejo edificio que está siendo destruido /
Like an old building being torn down

What does a day in the life look like for a child working in agriculture? Some may conjure Depression-era images of colorless, unsmiling faces. Snapshots from long ago. Yet today, while many grade-school kids can be found playing Fort Night or dancing on TikTok, there are an estimated 500,000+ others picking everything from our cotton to blueberries, and missing out on both education and childhood.

From S. Beth Atkin’s Voices from the Fields (2000), Eugenia Ortiz describes her work day through poetry:

[…] I’m dirty, thirsty and hungry
My body is so tired and sore, that I fear it might crumble
Like an old building being torn down

There exists a unique and very questionable loophole in U.S. child labor laws, wherein farmworkers’ kids can be found legally picking crops as young as 10 years old. As COVID has left many without in-person schooling (including the meals it provided) or childcare, young members of migrant families are often left to take up work or care for younger siblings at home.

School is out, but not the fear of detention.

Layered onto the mounting burdens of this extraordinary population is the looming threat of immigration enforcement. Living conditions and economic hardships aside, not to mention language and cultural barriers, migrant students must also navigate risks of deportation.

Fear of compromising their families’ circumstances leaves migrant children operating in an entirely different sphere than fellow students. The isolation born of this wariness, coupled with new degrees of isolation within quarantine, places these young learners at a critically unfair disadvantage. And we’ve heard — for at least this much reaches headlines — just how much there is to fear from landing in U.S. immigration detention.

Family bonds run deep and are ever present among many Central- and South Americans, the demographics comprising most of our country’s migrant farmworkers. Parents and children alike live among eggshells, weigh each action against what may be on the line.

No place like home.

“A lot of times I don’t know exactly where we’re going, or for how long. When we move, sometimes I don’t remember where I am.” — Julisa “Julie” Velarde, 12 years old

A migrant farmworker family moves with the harvest. To follow the crop is to trek across the country as seasons dictate what work can be done and where, which in turn means never settling for more than a stretch of months. Migrant students are identified as those who move to different school districts within their previous three school years as their families seek agricultural work.

The struggle students around the world, especially in vulnerable populations, currently face is in keeping up with academics despite a troubling lack of regularity, accountability and consistency. But this has been the norm for migrant students long before lockdown.

Children of migrant farmworkers have more profound perceptions of adaptability, acclimation, impermanence and the concept of home than most of us have ever been left to contemplate. Surely there is something to be said about this significant slice of our population living in such constant movement, in a time where the rest of the country has never been more stationary.

Homespun character. Repurposed material. Stopped motion. @restlessleg on Instagram

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