Point of View

For farm workers, a path to better lives

November 21, 2012 

As I write this, a 4-year-old boy remains in a medically induced coma at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. He was shot in the head on Friday night during an armed robbery in the mobile home in which his family was living for the North Carolina picking season.

The mobile home sits unevenly on concrete blocks among other uneven mobile homes on Plantation Lane in Sampson County, a dirt road riddled with bumps and holes. For migrant farm worker families, everything is uneven.

This migrant child was born four years ago in Florida and since June he has attended a Head Start center in Faison operated by the non-profit where I work, East Coast Migrant Head Start Project. Friday was our last day for operating our center in Faison; families were moving back to Florida as the sweet potato harvest wound down. Our school bus dropped off our students late in the afternoon at a bus stop along the paved road that runs adjacent to the migrant labor camp. Plantation Lane was too uneven for us.

How do we even out life for this child, his parents and the thousands upon thousands of migrant farm worker families who are responsible for putting the fruits and vegetables on our Thanksgiving table?

The road map to fairness begins by rejecting the notion that our country can rely upon temporary guest workers to grow and harvest our crops. As rightly observed in a recent letter to the editor of The Washington Post, by Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice, “[t]he history of temporary foreign agricultural worker programs demonstrates that they break up families, lead to exploitation of vulnerable people, displace U.S. citizens and permanent-resident immigrants, and depress wages and other labor standards for all.”

Rather than the flawed agricultural guest worker programs that have failed our country decade after decade, we must create an immigration process that offers these hard-working individuals a road map to citizenship. Such a path would be true to our democratic ideals and would empower farm workers with the rights necessary to improve their own conditions of employment. It would empower them with the economic opportunity to reside in communities more safe than the one on Plantation Lane.

During the 11 years that I have worked at East Coast Migrant Head Start Project I have come to know hundreds of migrant farm workers and count many of them as my friends. They embody everything we take pride in as a nation – they are industrious risk-takers devoted to family and to church. They are the most resilient and brave people I have ever had the privilege to know. So I remain optimistic that the resiliency and bravery of the farm worker community will carry our preschool student to a full recovery.

John E. Menditto is chief executive officer of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, which operates 57 Head Start centers for migrant farm worker children from Lake Okeechobee, Florida to Lake Erie, New York.

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