August 29, 2012

Any American who has turned on the news lately could watch many young immigrants taking a first step toward the American dream. The Department of Homeland Security began taking applications on Aug. 15 for "deferred action for childhood arrivals," temporary relief from deportation for unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the USA as children.

But what you did not see in the stories of thousands lining up in Chicago or packing churches in New York were the many children who should benefit but won't. Deferred action is intended for children who are "American" in everything but legal status, but the program's idea of "American" is unlikely to include the children who picked the oranges for your juice or the tomatoes on your hamburgers.

It is common knowledge that the U.S. agricultural industry depends on immigrant labor. What is less well-known is that hundreds of thousands of children, often starting full-time at age 11 or 12, are working in the fields. Under federal law, children can legally work in agriculture at younger ages, for longer hours and under more hazardous conditions than other working children. Many of them are U.S. citizens, but there are also plenty of unauthorized migrant children.

We learned, for example, of Ingrid Perez, a 17-year-old migrant farmworker who is unlikely to benefit from deferred action. To be eligible, applicants must be in school, have graduated from high school or have a GED, or be an honorably discharged veteran. But Ingrid, an honor roll student, dropped out of school to work. Children who move with their parents from state to state with planting and harvest change schools, on average, three times a year. They are also often under financial pressure to help support their families. As a result, child farmworkers drop out at four times the national average.

Applicants must also prove they have been in the country since June 15, 2007, but the usual ways of proving "continuous presence" through utility bills and leases will be difficult for children who live in migrant housing. Child farmworkers in rural areas are less likely to find lawyers who can help them with the application, especially because federally funded legal services organizations are barred from serving unauthorized immigrants.

Even getting identification, proof of who they are, can be challenging in rural communities. Ingrid has been trying to enroll in a GED course but can't without identification, which she does not have as an unauthorized migrant. She could apply for a passport at the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington, D.C., but that would mean a trip she cannot afford.

Some of these barriers might be addressed through administrative decisions on evidentiary requirements for deferred action. But what is clear is the program of deferred action was not designed for child farmworkers who, like many immigrants throughout U.S. history, live very different lives than middle-class, suburban kids.

Given the tenor of debate over illegal immigration, it's not surprising that the Obama administration designed a program for the best and the brightest immigrant children. But the fact that deferred action will probably exclude many farmworker children underscores how much immigration law is out of sync with the reality of an economy that depends on unauthorized immigrants and American families whose loved ones are unauthorized.

The children who help feed this country have American dreams, too. Congress should create the immigration system these children deserve.

 

Grace Meng is a U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report "Cultivating Fear: The Vulnerability of Immigrant Farmworkers in the U.S. to Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment."