Noted photojournalist speaks in Merced about migrant children crisis

Award-winning photojournalist David Bacon stopped by Merced on Monday night to start a local conversation about the growing crisis of migrant children in California.

Bacon has covered issues of labor, immigration and international politics for almost 20 years. He travels to Mexico, Central American countries and the Philippines frequently, where he documents the lives of civilians and their working conditions.

Bacon reminded the audience that the migration of children and families is nothing new. He cited the 1980s, when a large number of people from El Salvador fled to the United States amid their home country’s civil war. However, the more recent surge of immigrants is not necessarily due to violence, Bacon explained, but rather to an increasing economic crisis. Economies in countries such as Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico are not producing jobs, forcing people to look elsewhere to survive, he said.

The photojournalist shared his observations of a trip he made to San Pedro Sula in Honduras. He interviewed women who worked 14-hour days in factories for $30 a week.

“This is the alternative to migration – low-cost labor,” he said. “(For example), if social and political change would take place in Honduras, we’d see a lot less young people from that country.”

According to Bacon, the United States is connected to many of those countries’ economic problems. The North American and Central American Free Trade Agreement, which was supposed to create economic opportunities to decrease migration, instead allowed U.S. corporations to displace rural families from their lands, he explained.

After calculating for inflation, Bacon found that the jobs created by U.S. corporations actually pushed wages down for laborers.

“The reality is, children and families will keep coming if we don’t take responsibility,” he said.

Adding a more local perspective, Bacon also talked about his work when covering the working conditions of migrant farmworkers. Bacon was joined in a panel by three local college students, who identify as undocumented students or belong to mixed-status families.

Luz Sandoval, an undocumented UC Merced student, said she identifies with the migrant children who arrived in California from Central America this summer. “I know what it feels like to be in a place where you don’t know anyone or anything,” said Sandoval, who came to the United States at age 13. “It’s hard being away from your family, but sometimes I think if my mom hadn’t brought me here, I could have been one of the 43 college students who were recently killed in Mexico.”

Adolfo Lopez, another UC Merced student and organizer with the Merced Organizing Project, also shared his mixed-status family’s story. Lopez recalled on summer days he would join his dad in the fields. It was there where he first learned about the struggles of migrant farmworkers, he said.

Lopez is now an advocate of health care for immigrant families. In the fields he saw firsthand the toll that field labor can have on the human body. Lopez also explained that mental health is also at risk in mixed-status families. “The stress of being separated from your family can lead to mental health problems; I’ve seen it happen,” he added.