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From the fields to the classroom: Inside the lives of U.S. agriculture's youngest workers

The Aguilar sisters work in the fields 40 hours a week. They're also high school students, doing homework when they can. Many nights they go without sleep.
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SAN LUIS, Ariz. — It's nearly 4 a.m. in this border town, where a group of day laborers waits under the fluorescent lights of a Chase bank parking lot to board several white school buses.

Leslie Aguilar, 15, looks on as Jimena, 17, her sister, boards one of the buses heading to a farm several miles away. This is the first time the sisters aren't traveling together, and Leslie is concerned.

"I don't know where she is going," she says. "I don't know who the people are, where they're taking her and all that.

"I don't like to go like this, because we usually go together."

The Aguilar sisters have been in the parking lot since 10 the night before, going from bus to bus looking for field work, which proves challenging this September morning.

Migrant and seasonal day laborers gather outside a Chase parking lot to wait for buses that will take them to work on agricultural fields several miles away.
Migrant and seasonal day laborers gather outside a Chase parking lot to wait for buses that will take them to work on agricultural fields several miles away.Christine Romo / NBC News

Arizona is between crop seasons, creating a scramble among day laborers for fieldwork. Grown men and experienced workers were picked first that day.

Leslie and Jimena's story is part of an NBC News and Noticias Telemundo series. Click here to read the Telemundo story in Spanish.

"They know that we come day to day to come look for a job," she says. "And they don't accept us. They wish they can, but they can't, because they have rules they have to follow. Because some, they just need boys."

For the past year, the Aguilar sisters have worked in fields harvesting produce — eight hours a day, five days a week. They are among an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 child laborers who harvest the country's produce, according to the nonprofit Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs. U.S. Labor Department regulations allow for children, some younger than 12, to work in agriculture. Many of them are on their own in the U.S. — available statistics suggest that most don't live with their parents.

The result, experts say, has been a generation of children whose lives revolve around the fields — and who struggle to get educations. The Aguilar sisters work 40 hours a week, but they're also high school students, squeezing their homework into late-night study sessions and grabbing naps when they can. On many nights they go without sleep at all.

Jimena and Leslie Aguilar, 15, make their way across the Arizona/Mexico border to visit their parents in San Luis Rio Colorado in Sonora, Mexico.
Jimena, 17, and Leslie Aguilar, 15, make their way across the Arizona/Mexico border to visit their parents in San Luis Rio Colorado in Sonora, Mexico.Christine Romo / NBC News
On a mid-September morning, Jimena Aguilar, 17,  weeds a field to prepare for incoming crops on an Arizona farm.
On a mid-September morning, Jimena Aguilar, 17, weeds a field to prepare for incoming crops on an Arizona farm.Christine Romo / NBC News

Migrant and seasonal child laborers run the risk of being overlooked by the education system, several educators said. However, people at the state and federal levels are also working to break the cycle.

The U.S. Education Department's Office of Migrant Education has several programs to help migratory child workers and children of migrant workers attend and finish grade school, high school and college. The Migrant Education Program provides education assistance for migrant children ages 3 through 21, and the College Assistance Migrant Program provides financial assistance for undergraduates. They were founded to help child laborers like the Aguilars overcome any barriers standing in the way of their educations.

"Imagine moving from one state to another not knowing a soul, not knowing where to go to find resources for your child," said Laura Alvarez, director of the Migrant Education Program for Arizona. "That's where we come in. It's an unsettling thought to think what would happen if our program was not in place."

In Arizona, where agriculture is a $23 billion industry, an estimated 10,000 students are eligible for the Migrant Education Program, according to Education Department data. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Alvarez's team of educators would travel the fields to interview agricultural workers and identify children who could benefit from the resources provided by the program, even providing hearing aids and glasses when needed — any "tools to help them be successful in school," Alvarez said.

Telemundo's Nicole Suarez speaks with a melon field foreman on a farm along the Arizona/California border.
Telemundo's Nicole Suárez speaks with a melon field foreman on a farm along the Arizona/California border.Christine Romo / NBC News
IMAGE: Crane Great Beginnings Preschool
Crane Great Beginnings Preschool in Yuma, Ariz., is just one school across Arizona that participates in the Education Department's Migrant Education Program, a nationwide program that provides educational assistance to migrant children.Christine Romo / NBC News

Another challenge brought on by Covid-19 has been ensuring that migrant children have access to computers and Wi-Fi, as some Arizona schools have decided to start off the school year online.

"It is definitely a concern that for migratory children and our students in those communities, that access to internet is a challenge," said Kathy Hoffman, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction. "Sometimes it's not so much an issue of access to the laptop, but then when the laptop is brought into the home, then there's likely no internet connection. So you can't use it as much for that learning experience."

At places like PPEP TEC High Schools, a set of charter schools focused on catering to vulnerable populations like homeless and migrant children, computers and personal hot spots have been distributed to households in need of connectivity. In rare circumstances, PPEP TEC has also allowed for students like the Aguilar sisters to study around a busy growing season, sending them paper packets of homework in lieu of daily instruction.

The girls say that juggling work and school can be hard but that they continue to put a priority on their educations so that they can become "a big person in life." For Jimena, that means becoming a surgeon and for Leslie a pediatrician. Both are U.S. citizens, born in the U.S.

JB Rutagarama / NBC News

The sisters' current schedule requires them to attend school only on Fridays, but even then, free time is almost nonexistent.

When work is stable, the girls wait in parking lots at 4:30 a.m. to travel to worksites an hour and a half away. The girls pick weeds from melon patches for eight hours and then reboard the buses. They nap or do homework on the ride home. At 4 p.m., finally home from work, they climb into their beds and try to get some sleep.

But by 10 p.m. they're up again, this time to finish their assigned homework. They study through the night until 3 a.m., when it's time to head back to the parking lot once again.

"It's kind of hard, but at the same time, it's good, because that way we're in school," Jimena said. "And then we're in work, and we don't miss a day at work."

As the eldest of five children, Jimena has more responsibility than most, serving as her siblings' caretaker. The sisters also financially support their parents, who they say were deported to Mexico almost two years ago and recently lost their jobs because of Covid-19.

IMAGE: Day laborers school bus
Every morning, white school buses transport dozens of day laborers to work in fields in the Arizona and California region.Christine Romo / NBC News
Field workers prepare the fields for growing melons.
Field workers prepare the fields for growing melons.Christine Romo / NBC News

Jimena and Leslie each earn $500 a week. They live with family friends; pay rent, food and utilities every month for themselves and their younger siblings; and then send money to Mexico. They acknowledge that this level of responsibility may be forcing them to grow up too fast.

"'You guys, every time, always have to think about first what's in the house, then worry about what you need,'" Jimena recalls her parents telling them.

The Aguilar sisters' experiences resemble those of many other young adults who work in American fields and help support parents and other family members south of the border.

Leaning up against a white truck, Erick Delamantes, now a student at Arizona Western College, looks out across a field much like the ones where he used to toil as a high school student. He recalls the long days, which were especially long when he was trying to spend time with his family and keep his job. His family was still in Mexico, but work and school were in Arizona.

"I was alone over here in the U.S.," he said. "And so I used to wake up at 2 a.m. and [get in line for two hours] just to enter the U.S. to work over here [during] the weekends. And it was very, very cold, because, like, you work over here during winter break or winter season."

But with the help of the College Assistance Migrant Program, Delamantes no longer works in the fields and is contemplating a career in education.

IMAGE: Erick Delamantes
Erick Delamantes looks out at a field much like the one he used to work on as a high school student. Through the help of an Education Department initiative, he has been able to study full-time as a student at Arizona Western College.Christine Romo / NBC News

His classmate Luis Vargas, another recipient under the program, also started working the fields as a child and continues to work in agriculture to make sure his parents are taken care of.

"It's a lot of responsibility, because they can't come inside the United States," he said. "They have a Mexican salary, and I have to work here to earn some money and give them to sustain my other brothers and the house, basically."

Data on the number of youth farm workers living without their parents is scarce, said Kendra Moesle of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs and Children in the Fields Campaign. However, data from the Labor Department's National Agricultural Workers Survey has found that from 2004 to 2009, just 10 percent of the youth farm workers who were interviewed lived with their parents.

The Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs' estimates of number of children working in agriculture don't include children whose parents own the farm, a situation that Moesle said differs from that of today's young migrant and seasonal workers.

"There are very few of the farmworkers that you might picture from the Dust Bowl era of the poor white families," said Moesle, who grew up on a family farm. "There's some African American, some Caribbean, but they almost all have some kind of foreign tie. If they're not born abroad, then their parents were, is almost always the pattern."

IMAGE: Jimena Aguilar
Jimena joins dozens of day laborers to prepare the land on a farm in Arizona for another growing season.Christine Romo / NBC News

While having parents across the border can serve as an incentive to work hard in school and in the fields, the Aguilar sisters say being apart from their parents also takes an emotional toll.

"I miss that we're always together, and we always wake up in the morning together, and we always receive a hug," Jimena says.

But there is some relief on Sundays when the girls cross the border to San Luis Rio Colorado in Sonora, Mexico, to see their mom and dad. Yuma County, where the girls live, is within 25 miles of two border crossings, making the trip to Mexico easier.

The day NBC News met up with the sisters, Jimena and Leslie made their way across the border carrying only the essentials: water, wallet and, of course, homework.