A seasonal life: West Michigan nonprofits work to support migrant workers and their families

The children of Michigan's migrant workers face wide-ranging and severe challenges: working alongside their parents in the hot summer sun, being exposed to dangerous chemicals, feeling isolated and vulnerable because of seasonal travel, and gaps in education. To support these children and their families, many West Michigan nonprofits are providing services geared toward youth education, medical and dental health, daycare, and more.
Blueberries, apples, tart cherries, cucumbers. At the peak of summer, many of these local fruits are hitting grocery store shelves and farmers market stalls, and Michiganders are reaping the benefits of these wholesome, carefully hand-picked crops, thinking little about the hard work behind the harvest, and the individuals doing the picking. With more than 45 hand-harvested crops, 18 of which that rank first in the nation for production in a $91 billion industry, seasonal farm workers in Michigan are in high demand, and filling these roles each season is an often overlooked population: migrant workers and their families.
Designated as Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers by the Michigan Interagency Migrant Services Committee, the more than 50,000 people who make up the state’s migrant workforce face wide-ranging and severe challenges: working in the hot summer sun for long periods of time in uncomfortable positions, sub-par housing conditions, often unreliable wages, and seasonal travel that brings them to parts of the country where they may not know anyone, leaving them feeling isolated and vulnerable. Add fickle crops and unpredictable hiring, and migrant workers have an extremely difficult task each short season. On top of this, many migrant workers travel with their entire families, with children either working with their parents in the fields or looking to keep busy during busy summer work hours.

Though the challenges for the children of migrant workers are some of the same as those for the working adults, these minors face unique issues as they travel from state to state (and sometimes country to country) with their parents. Many West Michigan nonprofits seek to support migrant worker families with services geared toward youth education, medical and dental health and even daycare. Aiming to improve the quality of life for migrant worker families, these programs start young to create consistency and a lasting impression on the children and families that need them most.

One of the most pressing issues that migrant worker children face is the inconsistency of their education. "I hated moving around," says Director of Litigation at the Grand Rapids-based Migrant Legal Aid Mariza Gamez-Garcia . "It was disruptive to my education." A child of seasonal farmworkers who worked in both Michigan and Florida, Gamez-Garcia was constantly moving back and forth as her parents' jobs shifted with the picking seasons. Though she gravitated toward and excelled in math, she found that she was frequently missing vital schooling while moving from back and forth between states. Despite these disruptions, Gamez-Garcia maintained high grades in high school, graduated with honors and later went on to college to eventually become an attorney at Migrant Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm representing migrant workers.

As the ninth of 12 children, Gamez-Garcia was lucky. The first five children in her family, after moving to the United States with their father in the late 1970s, shortly dropped out of school to work in the fields with their parents. "I think they felt out of place," says Gamez-Garcia, of her older siblings, who found it difficult to fit in and concentrate on their studies when they were among the minority. She understands this herself and notes that "I found it hard to find friends."

According to the 2013 Michigan Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Enumeration Profiles Study, of the 27,965 migrant children and youth in Michigan each year, 23 percent are between ages of one and four years old, and another 37.9 percent are between five and 12 years old. That means that more than 60 percent — or over 17,000 children — of the migrant children population are in need of daycare, early childhood education or elementary school, years in which disruption of education and care is difficult to undo.

One national organization, Telamon Corporation, offers a Michigan Migrant Headstart program geared toward the children of migrant worker families throughout West Michigan, northern Michigan, the lakeshore, and the southeast. With free daycare and preschool geared toward preparing farmworker children for the public schools they are later likely to attend, Headstart increases the chances of these children later attending and graduating from high school, says Deputy State Headstart Director Kelsey Holsinger. "We do see quite a few returning families," she adds, noting that the consistency from season-to-season is a major factor in later educational success. Early education programs like these play a vital role for farmworker families, since 90 percent of their children are still not attending college, according to an October 2015 Michigan Radio article.

Teresa Hendricks

Another purpose of this type of program, says Holsinger, is to "keep them out of the fields." Though adults must also be wary of the harsh pesticides and chemicals used in agriculture, children are much more vulnerable to exposure, with the chemicals having disastrous effects on their health (check out this Farmworker Justice report for more information). Though federal law prohibits children younger than 12 to participate in farm work, this is still a young age to be exposed to harsh chemicals. Also, even if children stay home, they can still be susceptible to take-home toxicity, in which chemicals are transferred from parents’ clothing, according to Migrant Legal Aid Executive Director Teresa Hendricks.

Another vital purpose of these young children's programs is to provide an environment "where they can grow and prosper," says Holsinger. With annual funding for 1,279 children ages zero to five years old in the state of Michigan, Headstart provides daycare and preschool. Mostly, the education is designed to prepare migrant children for public school when they are old enough to attend. With a variety of centers, some open as early as April and as late as November to account for different crops' picking seasons, Headstart provides an invaluable summer resource for migrant parents.

Gamez-Garcia herself remembers attending a summer school for a few years when she was a child. Mostly, she recalls that the program at least provided kids somewhere to go while their parents worked. For the younger children, her mother provided daycare services, earning a mere two dollars an hour through public benefits while watching her grandchildren and the children of other farmworkers. "It was an obligation to help other people," says Gamez-Garcia, who can remember her parents stepping in to assist their fellow workers in a variety of ways, including loaning money and providing other support.

Daycare programs are especially helpful for new moms who were working while pregnant and must return to the fields soon after giving birth. "Very regularly we find pregnant women working in the fields," says Holsinger, noting that babies as young as two weeks old can be enrolled in the Headstart program. Headstart also provides resources for these moms-to-be. These services include connecting the women and their families with health and dental services. "Health insurance is a big barrier. It can be quite costly," says Holsinger. "Especially for pregnant women."

Even if migrant workers have applied for and are receiving federal benefits like Medicaid, many will only have eligibility for benefits in one of the states in which they live. And, as Holsinger points out, the application process is so long and complex that workers will generally not apply for benefits in another state, leaving them without insurance for a good chunk of the year.

In addition, many migrant worker families do not have health insurance or other federal benefits at all because they are afraid to apply due to their immigration status. "Immigration fears can keep them from benefits their own children are entitled to because they're U.S. citizens," says Hendricks. "[It is] generally accepted that up to 50 percent [of migrant workers] are undocumented immigrants," says Hendricks, while others in the industry estimate up to 80 percent. Thus, mixed families, those with family members who are documented and undocumented immigrants, as well as U.S. citizens, will go completely without federal benefits because the parents are afraid of becoming vulnerable to deportation during the application process.

In addition to fears regarding public benefits, undocumented parents face other challenges — such as the language barrier — that places pressure on their children, many of whom speak both English and their parents' native language in order to help their families communicate and to function in daily working and personal life in the United States. "Farmworker children have a much greater responsibility to their parents than a normal child," says Hendricks.

"I remember interpreting at a very young age," says Gamez-Garcia. Entering the U.S. before she was even a year old, Gamez-Garcia was fluent in English and Spanish, and frequently assisted her father, a crew leader, in interpreting in the field. "If somebody got hurt on the job, they would pick us up and go to the doctor with them," she says. Hendricks reports that this type of interpreting, while helpful, can lead to farmworker children, who are minors, playing an important role in legal, financial and medical decisions, a difficult situation for a child.

Though nonprofit organizations that assist farmworker families — organizations like Telamon — now have Spanish-speaking staff to prevent this from happening, children still frequently find themselves having to navigate an adult world. Hendricks notes that agencies assisting the migrant worker population should, as a matter of practice, be bilingual in order to prevent children having to interpret for parents, and also mentions that local courts have gotten much better, requiring interpreters for in-court proceedings (check out this  2013 Kent County Probate Court Language Plan that stipulates interpreter requirements).

On top of challenges in consistent education, staying out of the fields and serving as interpreters, migrant worker children often have trouble feeling isolated among their peers. Simply not being present for portions of the school year can be extremely difficult, and they can face being bullied or ostracized by fellow students for being from other countries.

Organizations like the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance (LEDA) have formed "to dismantle barriers to ensure people of all ethnic backgrounds have equal access and opportunity to participate fully in the life of the community," according to its website. Much of their work is focused on the large migrant worker population and their children, offering a migrant mentor program that matches these children with local volunteers. Meeting weekly to engage in both social activities and academic support, these migrant mentors serve a variety of purposes.

"The goal of the program is to increase the comfort level of the children and their families in the local community, increase access to community resources, build cultural bridges, and assist with academic achievement of migrant children," according to the LEDA's website. In 2015, the 19th year of the mentoring program, 30 volunteers mentored 52 migrant children. Over its history, the program has successfully conducted 740 mentor matches, resulting in a 93 percent high school graduation rate and 24 percent college graduation rate for migrant mentees. LEDA also hosts a summer reading program designed to increase literacy in July and August for children whose parents are specifically employed in the blueberry harvest.

"Our migrant programs provide opportunities for meaningful multicultural exposure, which in return help to reduce the impact of social and cultural isolation," says Program Director Alfredo Hernandez. "[They] shorten those cultural gaps by connecting sectors of our society that often remain divided due to systemic barriers. These new connections lead to mutual learning and collaboration across cultural and socioeconomic differences."

These types of programs, that simply focus on connecting the migrant worker community with the domestic population of an area, can assist in preventing the type of racial and cultural discrimination that Gamez-Garcia witnessed as a child. "It was the discrimination I was seeing," she says, noting that poverty was a major division between her and her peers. "We would not have costumes for Halloween," she remembers, adding that her teachers helped her and her siblings create DIY costumes out of paper bags.

Despite facing such systemic problems, Gamez-Garcia notes that discrimination in the farmworker environment "became my inspiration." "I didn't like how people were looking at us," she adds, noting that, from the age of 11, she wanted to be an attorney in order to fight for the rights of others. Now working with Hendricks at Migrant Legal Aid, Gamez-Garcia has been living her dream since 2002.

Though they may not always be working in the fields, migrant workers’ children are an important part of the farmworker family. Traveling with their parents, learning the trade, experiencing different ecosystems, interpreting for family members and friends, and all the while trying to get an education and to simply fit in in a constantly changing environment, these young individuals have a daunting, often emotionally overwhelming job in front of them.

Even as times change and fewer migrant worker children are following in their parents' footsteps, the farmworker family continues to play a vital role in the agriculture of the state. As the community rallies around them with helpful services and dedicated individuals, Michiganders can increase their awareness of the population. "There's so much that people just don't know," says Holsinger, who herself knew little about the large population of migrant workers while growing up in Grand Rapids. Now, five years into her career at Telamon, she says, "I made it my life's goal to create awareness and advocacy around a population that is so deserving and so humble about what they do."

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photography by Adam Bird
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