Celebrating Migrant and Seasonal Head Start and Immigrant Workers during Hispanic Heritage Month

By Alejandra Londono Gomez

It was a sunny, summer morning as my small sedan maneuvered the Appalachian Mountains in upstate New York. For much of the car ride, I was in awe of the glistening landscapes and the fields of corn that filled my windows. My focus quickly changed from the luscious plants to the brown workers as they came into view. My mind raced about these farm workers, their families, and their children. I wondered how they endured the scorching sun rays and what sacrifices they made to be in the United States. During Hispanic Heritage month, I often think about my family who immigrated to the United States 18 years ago. I think about my parents’ sacrifices and those of other families who gave up their homes in pursuit of safety, wellbeing, and prosperity.

As a tribute to my parents and other immigrant parents, it is important to recognize and celebrate the overlooked and undervalued dedication of immigrant workers, like those in the agricultural sector. These immigrant workers, who overwhelmingly identify as Hispanic—and 54 percent of whom identify as undocumented—fuel our hungry bellies. Despite their central role, they lack basic job benefits, safety protections, and wages that allow them to care for themselves and their families. To learn more about how these issue impact children, I spoke with experts at the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association (NMSHSA).

Sofia Gilkeson, the policy and operations associate at NMSHSA, shared that farm workers live challenging lifestyles that include long work hours and geographical instability. Given these hardships, children of farmworkers need access to child care and early education programs that meet their families’ unique needs and provide them with a safe place to learn and grow. In 34 states, the Migrant & Seasonal Head Start (MSHS) program provides this specialized child care service for agricultural workers and their families. From 2018 to 2019, the program served over 29,000 children. MSHS also provides parents with extended child care hours in varying locations to serve families who move from state to state, keeping up with agricultural patterns and needs.

Ilda Martinez is the program manager at NMSHSA. She knows firsthand the life of a child with parents in the agricultural business, as she began her own education at a MSHS program. She noted that MSHS is important for families because they understand the challenges they face—such as language barriers and lack of knowledge of the educational system. Ilda also conveyed that immigrant workers, specifically farm workers, are making a real and tangible contribution to our society. As they endure this challenging lifestyle to put food on our tables, we must support MSHS to keep children out of the fields and in safe environments.

The last few years have been increasingly difficult for MSHS programs and the families they serve. They have faced the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires, and extreme weather patterns. Furthermore, the families who rely on these services have been further challenged by the lack of immigration reform. Immigrant workers, who have been crucial in building our nation, have felt the lasting implications of institutionalized racism and discrimination from our immigration system.

In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we must continue to call for broader policy changes in immigration. It’s time for congress to provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrant workers and their families, as well as support programs like MSHS that provide families with child care that meets their unique needs. Hispanic Heritage month is not only about enjoying Hispanic music and food that have influenced U.S. popular culture. It is also about celebrating and supporting the invaluable work of Hispanic immigrants and their families. Only by investing in their future, and their families’ futures, can we meaningfully celebrate Hispanic Heritage month. ¡Sí, se puede!