ERIC Identifier: ED376997
Publication Date: 1994-11-00
Author: Martin, Philip
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural
Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Migrant Farmworkers and Their Children. ERIC Digest.
This digest reviews the population characteristics of migrant and seasonal
farmworkers and their children. No current data system provides a reliable count
or profile of migrant children, but a data-gathering initiative launched in 1989
to determine the effects of the Immigration Reform and Control Act on
agriculture suggests that there are about 840,000 migrant farmworkers who have
409,000 children traveling with them as they do farmwork.
According to these data, the typical migrant child today shuttles between one
U.S. and one Mexican residence, rather than following the crops from one U.S.
residence to another. However, farmworkers and the farm labor market are
changing rapidly in the face of immigration reforms, the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and structural changes in Mexico and Latin America,
making a better database on farmworkers and their children more important than
EXPANSION OF FEDERAL EFFORTS TO SERVE MIGRANTS
image of a migrant farmworker depicted a hardworking White, Black, or Hispanic
family who lived during the winter months in southern Florida, southern Texas,
or central California. Every spring, they followed the sun northward to harvest
ripening crops from New York to Michigan to Washington.
The federal government began programs in the 1960s to help migrant workers
and their families to escape from "the migrant stream." In 1965, observers
estimated there were 466,000 migrant farmworkers, most of whom were U.S.
citizens. Many of these workers traveled across state lines with their families
to harvest crops.
During the era of the Civil Rights Movement, federal assistance was provided
to overcome the reluctance of state and local governments to assist migrant
workers who were in the area for only a short time. Many communities wanted
migrants to depart as soon as the harvest was over. For example, 39 states in
1960 had welfare regulations that required recipients to be residents of the
area from 6 months to 3 years ("Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Powerlessness,"
During the 1970s and 1980s, federal programs for migrant workers and their
families multiplied. Today the 12 major migrant and seasonal programs for
farmworkers spend over $600 million annually, which is equivalent to about 10
percent of what the 1 million migrant and seasonal farmworkers earn in wages
(Martin & Martin, 1994).
However, none of these federal migrant and seasonal farmworker programs has
the same definition of migrant or seasonal farmworker, and many programs have
expanded their definitions over time. For these reasons, there are no time
series data that allow analysts to chart the number of migrant farmworkers and
their children over time. During the 1980s, when Congress expressed interest in
the number and legal status of farmworkers to project the effects of immigration
reform on U.S. agriculture, the data problems were described as a harvest of
confusion (Martin, 1988).
WHAT CURRENT LABOR DEPARTMENT DATA SHOW
summarizes data about worker characteristics drawn from the National
Agricultural Worker Survey (NAWS). The NAWS study was initiated by the U.S.
Department of Labor in 1989 to address fears that immigration reforms were
likely to result in farm labor shortages. Other federal databases exist: The
Department of Agriculture Farm Labor Survey includes information on farmworkers
and their children based on data collected from farm employers about workers
they employed during a particular week, and the Department of Education's
Migrant Student Record Transfer System includes data on students identified as
having parents who are or were migrant farmworkers. Farm labor researchers
consider the NAWS data, however, to be the best data currently available. (For
reviews of other farm labor data sources, see Martin & Martin, 1994.)
NAWS data examines migrant farmworkers as a category of workers in the total
farm labor force. According to the study, there are about 5 million persons
employed sometime each year to work on the nation's 800,000 farms that hire
labor. About 2 million of these workers help to produce crops. Crop production
involves more seasonal employment peaks and troughs than livestock production,
hence, most migrant and seasonal farmworkers are employed on crop farms. About
half of these 2 million crop workers are employed more than one month in
agriculture, but less than 10 months; which translates into about 1 million
American workers depending on seasonal farm jobs for most of their annual
earnings (Mines, Gabbard, & Samardick, 1993). In the absence of a single
federal definition for migrant farmworkers, the NAWS study defined migrants as
workers who travel 75 or more miles in search of crop work. About 42 percent of
the 7,200 workers interviewed while doing crop farm jobs between 1989 and 1991
fit this definition of migrant workers. This suggests that approximately 840,000
of the nation's 2 million crop workers are migrants. Migrant and seasonal
farmworkers average about $5 hourly for 1,000 hours of work, for an average
income of $5,000 annually.
The NAWS study revealed that the migrant farmworkers were
primarily Hispanics (94 percent),
born in Mexico (80 percent),
married with children (52 percent),
doing farmwork in the U.S. without their families (59 percent),
mostly men (82 percent), and
are today, or were until 1987-88, unauthorized workers (67 percent).
NAWS interviewers obtained job histories from each worker interviewed, and
this enabled them to distinguish among three different groups of migrant
about 280,000 followed the crops from farm to farm and often from state to
about 700,000 workers shuttled into the U.S. from homes abroad, usually in
Mexico, but then remained at one U.S. residence while they did farmwork; and
about 140,000 of the workers first shuttled into the U.S. from homes abroad and
then followed the crops, and are thus double counted in the first two groups.
These migrant farmworkers together are accompanied by about 409,000 children.
Of the children, 373,000 traveled with their parents and did not do farmwork,
while 36,000 traveled and also did farmwork. In addition, the NAWS data suggest
that there are 169,000 youth who travel at least 75 miles to do farmwork without
It should be emphasized that the data on migrant farmworkers and their
children are remarkably inadequate. The data presented here could be
misconstrued to suggest that there are fewer migrant children than the target
populations of some of the federal programs designed to serve migrants and their
families. For example, the Migrant Education Program serves the children of
year-round workers employed on livestock farms (if they moved within the last 6
years) and also serves the children of workers employed in food processing
plants in which there is a high turnover among the workers. Labor laws consider
this last group of workers nonfarmworkers; not all migrant workers work on
Other federal programs serve fewer workers than are indicated by this
description. The Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) 402 program, for example,
casts a wide net to include migrant and seasonal farmworkers employed in nonfarm
packinghouse and processing operations. However, JTPA limits eligibility for its
services to workers legally authorized to be in the United States who are
employed at least 25 days in agriculture and who obtain at least 50 percent of
their earnings from farmwork, or spend 50 percent of their working time doing
IMPLICATIONS FOR MIGRANT PROGRAMS
Migrant farmworkers are
probably the largest needy workforce in the United States. Evidence exists that
migrant children's chances for success in the U.S. economy are hurt rather than
helped by their parents' occupation (National Commission on Agricultural
The situation is not likely to go away by itself, either. Labor-intensive
crop production in the U.S. has increased at a pace faster than that at which
labor-saving machines have displaced farmworkers (Martin, 1990). The value of
U.S.-produced fruits and nuts, vegetables and melons, and horticultural
specialties such as flowers and mushrooms reached $30 billion in 1991, 38
percent of the value of total U.S. crop sales (U.S. Department of Agriculture).
To put this growing sector of U.S. agriculture in perspective, the value of only
four of the hand-harvested commodities--oranges, grapes, apples, and
lettuce--exceeds the value of the U.S. wheat crop.
NAFTA is unlikely to change the role of the U.S. as North America's fruit and
salad bowl, largely because most fruits and vegetables are harvested in the
fall, during the season when Mexican production is lowest (Martin, 1993). But
NAFTA and economic restructuring in Mexico is changing the characteristics of
migrant farmworkers and their children. Displacement and dislocation in rural
Mexico, where 30 million people have an average income of less than $1,000
annually, is expected to accelerate Mexico-to-U.S. migration in the 1990s. Some
of these new migrant children will likely speak Indian languages rather than
Migrant and seasonal farmworker service providers thus may see their roles
evolve into being the primary government-funded service group addressing the
needs of new immigrants to the U.S. In this capacity, they will be dealing with
children who may not speak English or Spanish, and whose parents may not know
whether they will want or be able to remain in the U.S. For these reasons,
migrant programs that serve migrant farmworkers' children will need flexibility
to deal with an ever-changing population as we move through the last years of
Martin, P. L. (1988). Harvest of confusion:
Migrant workers in U.S. agriculture. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Martin, P. L. (1990). The outlook for agricultural labor in the 1990s. U.C.
Davis Law Review, 23(3), 499-523.
Martin, P. L. (1993). Trade and migration: NAFTA and agriculture. Washington,
DC: Institute for International Economics.
Martin, P. L., & Martin, D. (1994). The endless quest: Helping America's
farmworkers. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Migrant and seasonal farmworker powerlessness: Hearings before the
Subcommittee on Migratory Labor of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare,
Senate, 91st Cong., 1st and 2nd Sess. (1970-71). (16 volumes of hearings
produced under the direction of Senator Walter Mondale).
Mines, R., Gabbard, S., & Samardick, R. (1993). U.S. farmworkers in the
post-IRCA period: Based on data from the National Agricultural Workers Survey
(NAWS). (Research Report 4). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of
the Assistant Secretary for Policy.
National Commission on Migrant Education. (1992). Invisible children: A
portrait of migrant education in the United States. Final report. Washington,
DC: Author. (ED 348 206)
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Economic Research Service. ERS. Economic
Indicators of the Farm Sector (annual).