Risky Decision: Young Immigrants Sometimes Must Choose Between Work and School

BY John Cox Californian staff writer 

Armando Ramirez was about 14 years old when he left his home in southern Mexico to find work in California.

First he and his 20-year-old brother went to Salinas to apply for a job harvesting broccoli alongside their mother. But while the older brother was hired, family members said, Armando was turned down on account of his age.

About a year ago, the brothers moved to the Arvin-Lamont area. And that’s where Armando found the composting job that took his life.

Although his work papers said he was 30 at the time of his death on Oct. 12, Armando was only 16.

His case highlights the plight of immigrants who come to the United States as minors not to get an education — some have no idea of a diploma’s value — but because family poverty forces them into an illegal arrangement sometimes condoned with a wink and a nod.

By law, Armando should have been in school at 11:33 a.m. the day of his death, not laboring under dangerous conditions. At the least, he was supposed to have a school-issued work permit — which Armando did not, because according to official records, he never attended school in Kern County.

Cal-OSHA says Armando was cleaning out a drainage tunnel at Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc. when he apparently inhaled a fatal concentration of hydrogen sulfide. His older brother, Heladio, saw him lying unconscious and went down to rescue him, only to be overcome as well. Armando was declared dead that day, while Heladio was left brain dead and wasn’t removed from life support until about two days later.

Practically speaking, rules intended to protect underage workers are not always enforced among undocumented immigrants using false papers and living in the shadows of society.

Too often, they are left with a difficult choice.

“How do you say to your family, ‘You’re not going to eat because I’m choosing to go to school?’ Those are really adult decisions that those children are making,” said Blanca Cavazos, who for 13 years worked as principal of Arvin High. On the job she often pleaded with parents to leave their children in school instead of taking them off to work in agricultural fields.

How often deaths like Armando’s occur is hard to say, because federal and state agencies do not specifically track instances of undocumented minors found to be working in unsafe conditions.

But related data are available, and they show, for example, that 141 child labor citations were issued in California last year, Cal-OSHA reported, down from 392 in 2008. The agency has reported no fatalities among any minors, undocumented or documented, in the state over the last five years.

Underage labor has been an issue particularly in the farmworker community, though estimates vary as to how widespread the situation is.

A report by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2000 found that, between 1993 and 1998, 7 percent of all farmworkers in the country — or 126,000 people — were between 14 and 17 years old. But as recently as 2000, United Farm Workers of America put the number of agriculture workers between the ages of 15 and 17 at as high as 800,000.

Ag work has proven uniquely deadly for the youth who do it. The National Consumers League reported that, between 1992 and 2000, 42 percent of all work-related deaths of minors took place in agriculture.

The work Armando died doing was related to agriculture but was not typical farm work. Authorities say his job, as well as that of his older brother, was to irrigate compost for use in soil amendments.

People familiar with Kern County’s immigrant worker community say instances of undocumented child labor may be on the rise because of the difficult economy.

“Just like in the Dust Bowl days, it was all hands on deck because it took all hands in the family in order to survive, for the family to survive,” said Cavazos, the former principal who now works as chief instructional officer at Kern County Superintendent of Schools. “The hope was that, OK, if we can survive, then maybe the next generation will be more fortunate.”

In some cases, immigrants new to the country avoid going to school simply because they do not understand the educational system here, said Gustavo Aguirre, a community organizer at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, which has offices in Delano.

Such was Aguirre’s experience when he came to the country (legally, he emphasized) at age 19. School was the last thing on his mind.

“I came to work,” he said. “Because you don’t know when you come to the country … You don’t see the opportunities.”

Armando Elenes, a representative of the United Farm Workers union, said employers sometimes look the other way when hiring an underage worker. But he said the young people and their families share some blame as well.

“Unfortunately, it’s a two-way street,” Elenes said. “The workers, out of desperation and need, sometimes, you know, they’re here, they’re young, they’re here (at) 15, 16 years old, 17 years old.

“And, of course, it’s also the employer whether it be a labor contractor or a grower. They sometimes turn a blind eye.”

Aguirre agreed that some employers knowingly accept false papers.

“They just want bodies, people working,” he said.

Other times, minors trick employers into letting them work. In Armando Ramirez’s case at the Lamont composting center, for example, the boy’s work papers identified him as Jose Guillermo Martinez, said the composting company’s lawyer, T. Mark Smith.

Did Armando look 30, as his ID stated?

“I never saw him,” Smith said, adding that Armando was required to undergo a physical examination by a physician prior to starting work at Community Recycling.

Ephraim Camacho, who now works as a farmworker advocate at California Rural Legal Assistance, said he remembers hoeing weeds in Kern County cotton fields as young as 13 or 14 years old.

“My dad would have me put on a big hat, which basically covers your face so your foreman wouldn’t see you,” said Camacho, now 61.

He recalled being lucky, in that he and his six brothers and four sisters went to school, and even attended college. But he expressed sympathy for Armando Ramirez, who wasn’t able to get a high school education.

“It’s a tragedy that children have to go through these situations,” he said. “I just think that more enforcement is needed to protect these children.”

Armando’s family members said he studied in Mexico but that he quit when he came to the United States.

Asked why the boy stopped going to school when he got to California, Armando’s cousin Roberto Ramirez said the reason was simple: The family needed the money, especially his sister back home in Mexico.

“Because of need,” the cousin said.