In our discussions of migrant life, students return again and again to the idea that citizenship and legal status are directly tied to the degree of suffering farmworkers can expect to endure. For my students, notions of social justice or inequality are overshadowed by paperwork and legal status. Students seem to justify or explain the poor and desperate conditions of migrant families by repeatedly reminding me that the migrant workers are not "legal" and not entitled to expect the same levels of pay, conditions or housing. We talk about using the term "illegal" to describe human beings and the class agrees that the word has a negative, derogatory connotation.
As farmworkers and their families have settled out of the "migrant stream," or changing path of produce harvests, during the last 60 years, immigration status has become more of a complicated issue. My students repeatedly express the common misconception that most migrant workers today are physically present in the United States only to work and then take or send their money back to another country. In fact, many farmworker families are permanent or semi-permanent residents in various states of "official" residency status. The class agrees that those workers here as a result of "guest worker" legislation or those without any official documentation are the most vulnerable when it comes to exploitation by employers. It seems difficult for them to imagine a connection that transcends official paperwork or political borders on a map: the fundamental connection between human beings who produce food in desperate conditions and different human beings who consume the product of their labor.
I believe that any discussion or study of civil rights and social justice in secondary social studies curriculum needs to include a look at the lives of migrant farmworkers. Unfortunately, most traditional high school social studies classes do not include issues related to migrant farmworkers. Our United States history textbook contains just three sentences related to César Chávez, farmworkers, and the Hispanic/Latino civil rights struggles of the 20th century. As Daniel Rothenberg notes in his excellent book With These Hands: The Hidden World of Migrant Farmworkers Today, the human costs and socially invisible problems of modern agriculture demand that we take a second look at hard work, opportunity, and social justice in the United States.
THE POWER OF ORGANIZING
I attempt to demonstrate the power of farmworker union organizing during one of our discussions. I tell the class to imagine that I am a prospective employer rather than their teacher. They immediately stop talking and sit up in their seats.
I say to the class, "I have a job that is not particularly dangerous or terrible but it has to be done soon and I will pay $14 an hour for someone to do this job. Who will work?"