Thanks to a loophole in U.S. child labor laws, farmworker kids can pick crops as young as age 10. But education offers a path out of poverty, if the kids can stay in school.
Aracely Benavides first went into the fields when she was a kid. "I was probably like 13," she said. "I started working really young."
Her family needed her to start working to help to make ends meet. Though she'd only finished the sixth grade, Benavides stopped going to school and joined her parents doing seasonal farm work.
Her family traveled from harvest to harvest across the southwest, from Texas to Arizona to California. "We did cotton," she said. "But mostly it was either apricots, peaches or grapes."
As a little girl, she had dreamed of growing up to be a chef, or maybe a teacher. But when Benavides stopped attending school, her options were severely curtailed, and she became destined for a life of migrant farm work. "I didn't have the fortune to go to school as much as I would have liked to. My parents decided that as soon as I finished sixth grade, that was it. That was my school."
She's 47 now, and for more than three decades, she's been doing one of the riskiest jobs in America. Farmworkers are exposed to pesticides, extreme weather and dangerous equipment. It's deadlier than being a firefighter, a mine machinery operator or a police officer.
But farmworkers aren't compensated for the risks they take. Harvesting crops is one of the nation's lowest-paying jobs. The latest data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that farmworkers' average family income is around $20,000 to $25,000 a year. The work is often temporary. When one harvest is done, workers move on to the next. As do their kids. That constant moving can put farmworker youth behind in school.
When you're struggling to catch up in school and your family is struggling to pay the bills, it can make starting to work seem like a pragmatic option.
By some estimates, there are more than 80,000 kids picking crops in the U.S. And it's totally legal.
Under federal law, children of any age can work on farms operated by their parents, and kids as young as 10 can be hired to work on farms not operated by their relatives during short-term harvests. At age 12, kids can begin working nonhazardous farm jobs outside school hours with parental permission. And at 16, they can do any job on a farm regardless of the risks. That's at least two years younger than other industries.
Farms have long operated under looser child labor laws than every other industry. For non-agricultural work, the rules are stricter: Federal law says kids must be 14 to work — only in non-hazardous conditions — and their hours are limited during the school week. For hazardous work, the minimum age is 18.
There have been several attempts in recent years — through both legislation in Congress and administrative rule-making — to tighten the child labor restrictions for farms, but they have all failed in the face of opposition by agricultural conglomerates.
That means the laws for child labor haven't changed much since Benavides was young. Technically, she should have been in school until at least age 16, but compulsory education laws in the United States are at odds with the reality faced by many farmworker families. When you're changing schools all the time, who is going to keep track of your attendance record?
When Benavides stopped going to school, she says there was no one who intervened to find out why.
When she had two kids of her own, she was determined to make sure they could stay in school and have a chance to leave the fields. "Not that what we do is bad or it's not right because we work really hard to get our money, but I know I have smart kids. I know they can do better."
Legacy of shame
The plight of farmworkers in the U.S. received widespread attention with the 1960 broadcast of "Harvest of Shame" by journalist Edward R. Murrow on CBS. The iconic film documented the low wages, long hours and hazardous conditions workers faced in the fields, and the challenges faced by their kids. At the time, farmworkers had few protections. Agricultural workers had been excluded from the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that implemented federal labor regulations like minimum wage requirements, overtime pay standards, and child labor restrictions.
Murrow's film was beamed into living rooms across the United States as the farmworker movement was gaining momentum. In 1962, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta formed the United Farm Workers in California, and across the country, from North Carolina to Maine to Texas, workers have continued to organize for better wages and improved working conditions.
In the years that followed, as the Farmworker Movement gained more attention, state and federal lawmakers enacted a number of reforms. But one legacy remained largely unchanged: the loophole in child labor laws for agriculture to employ children at an earlier age than any other industry could.
The way workers are paid can put them in a vulnerable position. Instead of an hourly rate, farmworkers often get paid a piece rate based on their productivity measured in bags, buckets or boxes picked. That system benefits growers who need to quickly get crops in from the field, but it hurts workers who may feel pressured to work long hours, skip breaks, work while injured in order to earn a living, and leave school to work in the fields as early as possible.
Now there are more programs in place to help farm workers access health care and to help their kids stay in school. But legislative attempts to increase farmworkers' wages or to keep kids from working in agriculture have met powerful opposition from agricultural interests.
In the past decade, U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat, has introduced three bills to raise the minimum age that kids can work in the fields to match the child labor laws that govern other industries. The bill has never passed the U.S. House.
In 2012, the Obama administration's Labor Department proposed a rule that would have restricted the kinds of work that farmworkers under 18 could do, including banning the use of heavy machinery. Family-owned farms were exempted, and the rule would have applied only to kids on farm payrolls. But the Labor Department withdrew the rule after getting strong opposition from farm groups and senators from Midwestern states.
Agriculture interests have made large campaign contributions to both political parties over the years. In the 2012 cycle, crop producers contributed $26.4 million, with 72 percent of that total going to Republicans, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Strengthening protections for farmworkers has been largely left up to the states. This summer, New York passed legislation giving farmworkers collective bargaining rights and an overtime pay guarantee.
Critics warn these changes will drive up costs and push farmers out of business, but advocates point to the legislation as necessary to lift farmworkers out of extreme poverty. For now, New York remains an anomaly. Just nine states have raised the minimum age that kids can work in the fields to 14.
Breaking the cycle
In late June, the green tops of sugar beets and potatoes spread across the flat fields of North Dakota's Red River Valley. Come fall, beets destined to become sugar and potatoes on their way to becoming French fries and chips will be hauled from these fields by a steady stream of trucks. During harvest, the work happens 24 hours a day until the crops are cleared from these fields. And for the past 17 years, Aracely Benavides and her family have relied on the fertility of the Red River Valley to make a living.
Her husband, Juan, is from a farmworker family too, and, like Aracely, he never graduated from high school. They've made a life together and raised a family moving between Texas and North Dakota.
Aracely's older son, Juan, was born in Texas. Her younger son, Angel, was born in North Dakota. They're growing up with their lives split between two places. They've never spent a full year at the same school.
Aracely wanted more for her two sons than a job sorting potatoes and beets, or driving a tractor. Research shows that education is critical to getting ahead. A high school diploma and a college education can be a ticket out of generational poverty.
But Aracely wasn't sure how she'd get her kids on that different path without more stability. Then one day a friend she worked with told her about the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program.
"And I saw the benefits that the kids could get out of it, and my thoughts started to change," she said. "My mind started to change."
A bus started picking up her kids early in the morning from her house, and they'd spend the day at a free preschool for farmworker kids. Knowing they had a safe place to learn and play gave her hope that she could give her kids a different future.
"And I started educating them like that. Thinking that way: dream big. Don't settle with just whatever. Dream big."
Aracely wants all farmworker youth to have a chance at their dreams, not just her kids. She's been fortunate to turn that into her vocation. Her husband still does farm work, but Aracely is now an outreach worker for the Migrant Education Program.
The federal program was signed into law in 1966. Its mission was to provide migrant kids ages 3 to 21 with extra support as they move from school to school.
Then in 1969 the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program started up to serve kids from birth to 5 years old. In tandem, the two programs work to keep kids out of the fields and in school.
The programs were part of a series of reforms passed in the wake of Murrow's "Harvest of Shame." Murrow told viewers that, "Anyone who knows anything about this situation agrees that the best hope for the future of the migrants lies in the education of their children. But for the children of migrants, education is not easy to come by.
"Approximately one out of every 500 children whose parents are still migrant laborers finishes grade school, approximately one out of every 5,000 ever finishes high school and there is no case upon the record of a child of migrant laborer ever receiving a college diploma."
Today the Migrant Education Program funnels federal dollars to states to provide academic support to around 300,000 migratory kids. It helps the kids of seafood workers in Alaska, blueberry harvesters in Maine, and dairy workers in New York. It provides tutoring, counseling and summer programs like the one run out of the school in Manvel, North Dakota, where Aracely works.
Her job is to find farmworker families, talk with them about the importance of education, and get their kids enrolled in the summer program. That work involves going out and looking for kids where farmworkers live and sometimes tracking their parents down in the fields.
The summer program at the Manvel School provides an enriching alternative to working alongside their parents in the fields.
In a classroom one day last June, 15 high school students were clustered around tables all working on their own. They came to North Dakota from different places and at slightly different times depending on the farm work their parents do, which means their educational needs were all different.
A couple of boys were working on biology together. One girl was drawing for an art credit she needed. Aracely's 14-year old son, Angel, was in the class. He's a tall, lanky kid with deep brown eyes and a wide smile, and he was working on algebra. It's not that he didn't pass it the first time, but because he wanted to get ahead.
Back in seventh grade, he was signed up for pre-algebra in his Texas school, and that would have put him on track to take advanced math in high school. But he wasn't back from North Dakota in time. He hoped that an Algebra 1 credit from Manvel's migrant summer program would get him back into advanced math in Texas. This is all a part of his plan to go to college.
Angel knows that because his parents don't have high school diplomas it's hard for them to find jobs that are more stable. And he knows that his mom feels bad about that.
"She would tell me before how she wishes she had the opportunity to learn and go to college so we wouldn't have to migrate," Angel said. "She's like, 'I'm sorry that you have to do this. I know it hurts.'"
In late October when Aracely's job at the summer program ends and there's no more work on the farm for her husband, Juan, in North Dakota, Angel's family makes the roughly 1,700-mile journey back to Rio Grande City, Texas.
"If you eat, this falls on you. ... We all get to enjoy the fruits of the labor of the farmworkers." Norma Flores Lopez, Child Labor Coalition
If it were up to Angel, he'd make the south Texas border town his home year around. He'd have more time with his extended family and he wouldn't have to switch schools. Trouble is, it's a hard place for his family to make a living.
Rio Grande City is in Starr County, the poorest county in Texas. It's been this way for generations, though workers have fought to change it.
Today the median household income in Starr County is around $27,000 — less than half of what it is for the nation. And the unemployment rate is high.
A lot of families, like Angel's, have to migrate to find work. The Rio Grande Valley is home to more than half of the migrant families in Texas. And Texas has one of the largest Migrant Education programs in the country, with some 31,000 students.
Migratory youth constantly face being the new kid: new teachers, new friends, finding classrooms in new schools. The Migrant Education Program is in place to help kids push through to graduation and go on to college. But it feels like a lot of pressure on kids who move all over the place. The average level of formal education completed by farm workers was eighth grade, according to a 2016 survey from the Labor Department.
Most states have Migrant Education Programs, but that doesn't guarantee that outreach workers will find every migrant student out in the fields or that every school will be clued in to the needs of farm worker families.
And that's one of the critiques of the program. Federal dollars are routed through states to local school districts and in some cases nonprofits that want to run programs. But migrant education is not like special education where students are guaranteed the support they need.
Rhode Island, Connecticut and West Virginia have opted out of the program for years. Wyoming dropped out in 2017. The Wyoming Department of Education said it cancelled the program because changes in agriculture had reduced the number of migrant kids coming to the state.
But in Rio Grande City the Migrant Education Program has a million-dollar budget to support mentoring, tutoring and special workshops on reading, writing and math skills.
There's also a team of counselors dedicated to the needs of migrant students.
Erika Pratt is one of those counselors.
"We never belittle their [farm] work because it's honest living. And without migrants we wouldn't be eating. We have our vegetables, our fruit because we have migrant workers," Pratt said. But she does encourage kids to dream beyond a future working in the fields like their parents.
"OK, your parents are doing this for you to get a better education, for you to become somebody who doesn't have to work as hard. How nice would it be for you to work in air conditioning especially here in south Texas, where the temperature can be 110 degrees?" she said with the air conditioner in her office blasting to hold back the Texas heat.
She says she tries hard to help students get into college because it can be a ticket out of poverty for them and possibly their families.
Pratt tells her students, "You can even break that cycle for your parents. Come back and help them."
The U.S. Department of Education doesn't track graduation rates for students in the Migrant Education Program, so we don't know how many are leaving farm work behind and moving into better-paying jobs. But what we do know is that kids in the Migrant Education Program score below the national average on state reading and math assessments given in third through eighth grade. About 28 percent of migratory kids score proficient; that's compared to 40 percent of other kids from poor backgrounds.
Pratt says keeping migrant kids on track requires the creation of specialized plans.
"It covers anything from needing materials, needing uniforms, going over their schedule, integrating themselves into extracurriculars," said Pratt.
She says the goal is to get them to high school graduation and into college.
One incentive they provide is college scholarships. In early February the Migrant Education Program staff held a fundraiser for a scholarship fund. In the parking lot of a grocery store, they set up big grills and volunteers were boxing up barbecued chicken with Mexican rice, potato salad, a slice of bread and pickled jalapeno.
Aracely Benavides was there volunteering. Her son Angel was only a freshman, but she was happy to help raise money for this year's seniors.
"I hope that the money goes a long way because farmworkers don't make enough money to send their kids all the way through college," she said. "Any little bit helps."
Gina Gonzalez was helping out at the fundraiser too. She's the director of federal programs for the Rio Grande City schools, where she oversees its Migrant Education Program. She said the Migrant Education Program helps, but it would be easier to keep migrant kids in school if child labor laws kept them out of the fields.
"The United States child labor laws don't apply to these children and that is a big sore on my back, because I don't understand how the United States would allow a 10-year-old to work in horrible conditions in some cases, and it's OK," Gonzalez said. "It's wrong. A 10- or 11-year-old should not be working fields. They should not be doing that."
The Labor Department issued a report in 2014 that 84,000 youth ages 14 to 18 do farm work. That's about 6 percent of all farm workers. And the majority of them were boys traveling on their own.
But the report also looked at parents whose children lived with them and who reported doing farm work. And 24 percent of those children were younger than 14. The report indicated that most kids who work continue to attend school, but it also found that between the ages of 14 and 17, around 20 percent of them are behind their grade level in school. And 2 percent of kids ages 6 to 17 were not enrolled in school.
Each state requires kids to be in school until a set minimum age, between 16 and 18. But Norma Flores Lopez says farmworkers' kids may be overlooked. She works for the Child Labor Coalition, which advocates to end child labor. Lopez says farmworkers can be invisible.
"If those children were as present as, let's say, waiting on our tables or vacuuming the floors in our offices, I feel like people would react differently," Lopez said, "if they had to confront and face these children over and over again."
She fights to keep kids off the job and in school, and she also works on Capitol Hill lobbying to keep educational support for farmworker students in place. But she says it's not enough just to help the students.
"Folks are OK with investing in children and providing them with educational opportunities but turn the other way — turn a blind eye — when it comes to doing something for the parents, for the farmworkers."
Lopez grew up in a south Texas farmworker family herself. With support from the Migrant Education Program she beat the odds, graduated from high school and eventually got a master's degree. But she says that wasn't the case for many of her farmworker peers.
Beating the odds
Aracely's oldest son, Juan, is hoping to beat the odds too. This mom with a sixth-grade education now has a son who is a junior at Texas A&M University.
Juan is studying civil engineering and dreams of one day building his own house. "I was always traveling a lot all over the place. And I just want to take pride in the fact that I have my own house, but like designed and built by me," Juan said.
Though he's been in college for three years, he says he's still sometimes amazed he's where he is.
"Wait a second, like, my grandparents come from this really small town in Mexico, and it's like, how did that transfer to my parents and how did that transfer to me so quickly?"
He doesn't know too many other first-generation college students like him. "A lot of people who come to A&M, since A&M is like a tradition, a lot of people have their great-grandfather's ring. It's like they come from a family of academic people," Juan said.
He'd like to be the one to start that tradition for his family. He thinks about that every time he prepares for an exam. He really wants to do well so he can help his family. "And I stress myself out so much because I know I'm expected to be successful."
But he'd take that pressure over a long hot day in the fields. That makes him think of one friend in particular who he's known since kindergarten. Growing up, they both had good grades. They both won national migrant student awards.
"But as soon as we got out of high school his parents didn't really back him up. My parents said, 'Hey, get financial aid, get scholarships, we'll figure it out, you're going to college.' His parents said, '$10,000 a year is crazy, we're never going to get money for that, we're never going to pay that.'"
Now that friend is back doing farm work with his family to help make ends meet. Juan grew up doing farm work, too, but only on the weekends and when it wouldn't interfere with school. He knows his parents have sacrificed to make education a priority. They knew that getting Juan out of the fields, and through college, was essential. They want him to have a more prosperous life than they've had.
"My plan is once I get my diploma, I'm planning to make a copy and give the original to my parents and I'll keep a copy in my office. Because it is for my parents. Like I'm doing this for myself but it's for my family," Juan said. "So I'm the first generation, so now it's expected of everyone else after me. I'm kind of setting the example."
But activist Norma Flores Lopez says lifting farm workers out of poverty shouldn't be put on kids. "If you eat, this falls on you," she said. "And so that pretty much is everybody in society. We all get to enjoy the fruits of the labor of the farmworkers.
"We need to raise our voices and say we will not accept fruits and vegetables picked in exploitative situations or by children here in America."