This post was written by Chanchala Gunewardena, (Clark University 2011), Summer 2010 intern in WITNESS’ Communications department.

Last Thursday, WITNESS was invited to The Paley Center for Media for a screening of a special segment of NBC’s Dateline, titled America Now: Children of the Harvest. This piece, a follow up to a 1998 Emmy Award winning report on migrant farm workers and their families, attempts to see, what has developed and changed in the lives of a particular group of people twelve years on. More specifically however, it is focused on the issue of child labor, as migrant families who work in the agricultural sector tend to be assisted in their work by their whole family, including children under the legal working age (for this specific sector) of twelve.

The primary subjects of this report are the Cruz family. They are a legal migrant family that have spent many harvests traveling thousands of miles to gather pounds upon pounds of crops on other people’s farms in order to achieve their livelihood. This lifestyle has meant that come harvest time, which precedes the end of the school year, the Cruz children such as Ulysses aged ten, are taken out of school so they can assist their parents at work. They often return a quarter of the way through the start of the new school year, lagging behind in their education having spent months away from their books toiling for many hours in the sun.

It would be easy to place blame with the parents, but as the cameras follow the Cruz what they capture is actually is a multi-faceted and complicated story. For instance viewers are shown how underage are often taken along with the rest of the family in order to maintain the family unit which would otherwise be separated for several months. Children also, in whatever capacity they are able to work, provide extra hands that tend to make all the difference when these workers are being paid far below minimum wage for their efforts. For there are families that, at some stage, might not be able to afford to send their children to school at all if they did not have those important extra dollars the children themselves bring in. Also, though the parents acknowledge that they know that it is illegal for a child under twelve to work, often the owners of some of the big farms these families work on turn a blind eye to the legal issues, thus passively reinforcing this labor. And finally, there is the issue of how much is being done at state and national level to bring child labor in this sector to an end.

Embedded below is part 1 of the segment. To watch the rest click here.


Children of the Harvest also documents how technology is changing agricultural labor. Advances in pesticides and farming are making these farm worker families redundant. The Cruzs themselves cannot find work for long during the summer and in the end return home. They fortunately have made enough over the years to acquire a ranch to fall back on, but what do these changes mean for less secure families? Though  there are happy outcomes for some of the children originally portrayed in the 1998 segment, most of them having gotten through college,one must not forget a statistic reiterated throughout, that ‘children of the harvest’ are four times more likely to dropout of school than their peers.

These complexities raised a lot of discussion post screening and I was able to get three interviews with participants in that discussion: Rayner Ramirez, the Dateline producer of both the 1998 and 2010 segments; Jo Becker, Advocacy Director of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and Sarah Zipkin Project Officer for Oxfam America’s Decent Work Program.

(Harvest of Shame, mentioned above in the interview with Sarah Zipkin, is a 1960 CBS television documentary on the trials of migrant workers in America’s agricultural sector presented by the highly respected Edward R. Murrow)

I think Dateline’s decision to follow up on this story, especially given the timeliness of the immigration conversation throughout much of the US, is important as it shines a light on the complicated relationship  America has with its ever changing demographic of citizens, the responsibilities they have and the rights that they are due.

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One thought on “New Documentary Explores Migrant Child Labor in the United States

  1. I don’t claim to be an expert in the field, but I do see some inconsistencies in your argument. I do, however, appreciate the fact that you took the time and effeort to address this sensitive topic. cheers!.

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