Dateline NBC Episode Gives Face to Forgotten Migrant Worker-Students


As a sports fan, it goes without saying that this past Sunday night’s NFL match up between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles had my attention. But what resonated with me was not the final score but, following the broadcast, a repeat of a Dateline NBC Sunday episode from this summer that focused on the plight of migrant child farm workers in this country.

The segment took a look back at one migrant family’s travels in 1998 from their home in Texas to Michigan to pick blueberries. NBC Correspondent Dennis Murphy caught up with the children, now young adults, to update viewers on their whereabouts today and also followed a new family as it criss-crossed the countryside in search of work.

While it was not clear if the parents were U.S. citizens, Murphy noted that all the children were, meaning they were born here. No matter on what side of the proverbial fence you sit regarding the immigration reform issue, here were real children who face long, hard days spent toiling in the fields when their counterparts back home are either enjoying summer vacation, are attending summer school or are working relatively cushy jobs at the mall. Even those children who spend summer days outside working are perhaps only mowing neighbor’s lawns. That’s a far cry from traveling 1,500 miles from home and living in a trailer or the family truck for months on end.

There is no set figure for how many children live on the road chasing the next crop that needs to be picked or weeded, but experts interviewed by Dateline said estimates are in the “hundreds of thousands.” To work on farms, U.S. child labor laws only dictate that the young boys and girls be at least 14 years old. Meanwhile, labor laws for all other types of jobs mandate a minimum age of 16.

Meanwhile, Head Start agencies across the county served some 32,000 young migrant children and another 2,500 seasonal children in 2010, according to testimony given to Congress by the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Quality Improvement Center. Most farm worker families also earn less than $10,000 a year and have no health benefits, according to U.S. Department of Labor data cited by the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association. And many of these children receive school bus transportation.

According to the International Initiative to End Child Labor, some 211 million children worldwide between the ages of 5 and 14 are working. The organization says on its web site that at least 60 million are working under dangerous or abusive conditions, with 70 percent of the children working in the agricultural industry.

It’s literally back-breaking work, and the days can be 12 or more hours long. The only restriction on hours of employment is that children cannot work during school hours, which isn’t an issue during the summer. And what U.S. entity enforces this mandate? The U.S. Department of Labor under the Fair Labor Standards, which also sets the rules for child labor.

For its first broadcast in 1998, Dateline’s Murphy showed pictures of migrant children hard at work to Susan King, then the  U.S. assistant secretary of labor.

“What really gets you is—when you see that, is that in this day and age, at the end of this century, we’re still seeing pictures that we would have expected to see at the beginning of this century,” she said.