California Forum

California quietly fails migrant children

California policy requires migrant farmworkers to move at least 50 miles away in November to qualify for the next season’s state-owned housing centers.
California policy requires migrant farmworkers to move at least 50 miles away in November to qualify for the next season’s state-owned housing centers. San Jose Mercury News

Every November, as the strawberry-growing season comes to a close, dozens of students at Aptos Junior High request permission from their teachers to withdraw from school. They return at the start of growing season in May and try to catch up on missed material, but many end up sitting out exams, including state assessments.

Their parents, migrant farmworkers, pick strawberries for a living while residing in a state-owned housing center. State policy requires them to move at least 50 miles away in November to qualify for the next season’s housing.

Emilie Cassar, a science teacher at Aptos, had several of her students leave last month. “I just had five or six migrant girls – very sweet, very quiet, with D’s and F’s in all their classes,” she said. “They were quietly failing.”

Of migrant students who took state assessments in 2016, 76 percent did not meet the standard in language arts, and 83 percent did not meet the standard in math.

“I would love to help these students more, but I can’t do anything when they’re not here,” Cassar said. “Many will end up dropping out. Some will end up working in the fields like their parents do.”

Migrant students at Aptos live at a housing center in Watsonville named “Buena Vista,” Spanish for “good view.” The center, home to more than 100 families each growing season, is adjacent to a medium-security jail and the county dump.

Elia Fernandez has lived at Buena Vista for 26 years. When her husband injured his back many years ago picking strawberries, Elia became the sole breadwinner for her five children.

“I work here because I have no education,” she said. “I take my children to the field and tell them, ‘Whatever you do, don’t work here. Go to school so you can do something else with your life.’”

The 50-mile policy is regulated by the Department of Housing and Community Development. It applies to all 24 of California’s migrant centers, which house an estimated 3,500 school-aged children each year. HCD’s mission is to “preserve and expand safe and affordable housing opportunities and promote strong communities for all Californians.”

With monthly rent of under $400, migrant centers allow farmworkers to make more than they spend. Still, most worry about the effects of temporary housing on their children. In a 2014 interview of California migrant farmworkers, 91 percent said the 50-mile policy affects their children’s education, and 97 percent said their children would benefit from attending one school continuously.

On Dec. 9, farmworker advocates held a protest outside HCD’s office in Sacramento. Protesters gave speeches, handed out fliers and held large white posters with “Education is a Human Right” and “HCD, Stop the 50-Mile Regulation” written on them. A light rain came down, signaling the end of the strawberry season and the start of migrant children withdrawing from school.

Ben Metcalf, director of HCD, is now considering several proposals that would mitigate the effect of the 50-mile policy. Some call for a reduction of the distance threshold, which would make it easier for families living in state-run housing to continue qualifying as residents – and potentially reduce access for those on waiting lists. While such tradeoffs should be fully investigated, it is clear that neither group is being served by the current policy, which forces a choice between affordable housing and continuous education for children.

Unless the policy is changed, seasonal farm work will continue implying seasonal schoolwork, and Cassar will once again have to sign permission forms next November. “This rule is setting up a permanent underclass,” she said. “It’s very, very detrimental.”

Kaveh Danesh is an economics doctoral student at UC Berkeley studying poverty and inequality. Contact him at