Most migrant children, like their parents, never graduate from high school. In fact, rather than attending school, many migrant children follow their parents into the fields, ensuring that the only thing they will learn is how to be a migrant worker.
The average migrant worker has only a sixth-grade education, and his child has only a 40 percent chance of entering the ninth grade. One out of five migrant children completes less than three years of school, according to the Labor Department.
But because “no definitive study” has been done on the subject, no one knows how many migrant children graduate from high school, says Reid Maki, communications director for the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. “We estimate the dropout rate to be about 65 percent. Anecdotally, we've heard reports from some areas that it's as high as 80 percent.”
Poverty and the transient nature of migrant work make it extremely difficult for migrant children to finish high school. Because migrant wages are so low, both parents usually have to work, and many families need their children to work in the fields as well.
“Since farmworkers are paid by how many buckets they fill, it's advantageous for the parents to have the kids helping,” says Sylvia Partida, director of operations at the National Center for Farmworker Health (NCFH).
Federal labor law allows children as young as 10 to work in the fields, but Partida says children even younger than that work alongside their parents on a regular basis. Indeed, the Department of Labor has photographed children as young as 6 doing farm work. In 1998, the General Accounting Office (GAO) estimated that 300,000 migrant children were working in the fields. The United Farm Workers union (UFW) estimates that the number may be closer to 800,000.
At least a third of all migrant children work in the fields either to contribute to the family income or because no childcare is available at their labor camps, Manda Lopez Klein, executive director of the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association (MSHSA), told the House Education Reform Subcommittee in 2003. The lack of migrant child-care services “contributes to child labor in this country,” she added.
Even when migrant children do manage to enroll, many find it hard to stay in school because most migrant families move at least once every two years — sometimes more often — searching for work. Children who change schools more than four times in their lifetime are at higher risk of dropping out, according to the NCFH.
Experts say moving often takes a greater emotional toll on migrants' children than on their parents, making it harder to constantly be newcomers or outsiders in a new school. Moreover, curricula in America vary from school district to school district, making it harder for children of migrant workers to keep up academically and increasing their sense of social displacement or alienation.
A special Head Start program for migrant children runs Head Start centers where some 34,000 migrants' infants, toddlers and preschoolers spend the day while their parents are working.
The Department of Education's Migrant Education Program (MEP) helps older children finish high school or obtain GEDs. Since entire migrant communities sometimes move together in search of work, the MEP occasionally employs teachers who travel with the communities. Other MEP programs help migrant children remain in their school when their parents have to move; participating area universities usually provide room and board for the students.
But, as Klein notes, the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program only serves a fraction of the eligible children, because until recently no one knew how many migrant children were in the United States.
“We've never had a really solid count of migrant farmworkers in this country, let alone migrant farmworker children,” Klein says. “So no one really knew” the extent of the problem.
But in 2001 a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) study showed that more than 161,000 migrant children are eligible for the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program. Thus, the program currently serves only 19 percent of needy migrant children, says Klein. By comparison, Head Start programs targeting non-migrant children reach 60 percent of eligible children.
“Our position now is, 'OK, you've done a study, so now do something about it,' ” Klein says. But with record-high budget deficits, Congress has no money to expand the program, she says.
Windy Hill, associate commissioner for the Head Start Bureau in Washington, says she's “unfamiliar with the HHS study,” but confirms that to increase funding of the migrant program, “we would have to have money made available” by Congress.