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Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011

Early Care and Education for Children in Immigrant Families
Lynn A. Karoly Gabriella C. Gonzalez

Barriers to Participation in High-Quality ECE Programs

While a growing body of evidence points to the positive benefits for immigrant children and their families from participating in high-quality ECE programs, we have also documented sizable gaps in participation rates in ECE programs between immigrant children and their native counterparts. Some of these differences can be explained by demographic and socioeconomic factors that are linked in the broader child-care and preschool literature to lower rates of ECE use.41 These include being in a two-parent family and having low family income, parents with low education, or a nonworking parent.42 Yet other determinants of care use, such as language barriers and knowledge gaps that relate to time in country, are unique to immigrants.43 These demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of immigrant families do not operate in isolation. They affect and are affected by a number of factors— structural, informational, bureaucratic, and cultural—as well as by immigrants' perceptions, all of which can impede immigrant families' access to various types of nonparental care during the years before school entry. The lower rates of enrollment in ECE programs on the part of immigrant children have prompted research into the causes. Much of this research is qualitative, drawing on small samples that may or may not be generalizable. Even so, it is reasonable to conclude from this literature that no single factor can explain why proportionately fewer immigrant children enroll in ECE programs. Rather, a combination of factors can be at play, and those factors may vary for different immigrant subgroups. The relative importance of different barriers may also change as immigrant families make decisions about ECE use for children at different stages of early childhood.

Structural Barriers
A number of structural factors can affect affordability, availability, and access to ECE programs for disadvantaged immigrant children, just as they do for disadvantaged families more generally. The cost of child-care and early-learning programs, particularly center-based care for infants, is a significant factor affecting the choices of low-income and working-class families.44 Children in low-income families are therefore less likely to use formal ECE programs because of the costs associated with participation.45 For example, in 2008 the market rate for care of preschool-age children was $180 a week; the rate for infant care was $267 a week, which was nearly equivalent to the weekly pay of a single minimum-wage earner.46 Affordability of programs is a particularly acute issue for many immigrant families because, on average, immigrant families have lower incomes than nonimmigrant families.47 As shown earlier using the NHES, children in low-income immigrant families use center-based child care less frequently than children of immigrant families with higher incomes or children in low-income, native families.48

Because immigrant children are overrepresented in the poverty population, they are typically eligible for subsidized care and early-learning programs through federal programs like Early Head Start, Head Start, or programs administered at the state level such as state-funded preschool programs or subsidized child care provided through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and the Child Care Development Fund (CCDF) block grant. Most immigrant children under age six are U.S. citizens and are therefore eligible for these programs if their families meet other requirements such as low income and, in some cases, a demonstrated need for care because the parents work or meet other criteria. Even if a child is eligible, an undocumented parent may not be able to demonstrate that he or she qualifies for the subsidized program. If parents are working outside of the formal labor market and have no verification of employment, a common situation for many undocumented immigrant workers, they will not be able to access available slots.49 In addition, the available subsidized programs do not cover all children who are eligible, and immigrant families may be less likely to obtain access if they are not able to navigate the system.

Beyond cost, there may be few care options in the community that can meet parents' needs for hours of care and other requirements. For example, a recent study for California documented that the shortage of suitable spaces for preschool-age children (that is, school-based slots or licensed private center-based providers in the child's neighborhood) is greatest for minority children, those with low parental education, and those whose parents do not speak English as their primary language.50 Immigrants live predominantly in segregated neighborhoods with fewer services compared with nonimmigrants. 51 In addition, immigrants with low education tend to work jobs that have nontraditional hours or to work multiple jobs at various hours. The limited supply of programs in communities where immigrants are concentrated often cannot meet their needs for bilingual or culturally competent staff, flexible hours, or subsidized spaces.52

Getting a child to and from an ECE provider can also be a barrier. Programs that are not within walking distance of the family or are not located along public transit lines can be particularly difficult to reach for immigrants who do not drive. This is an issue particularly for lower-income immigrants who cannot afford a car, undocumented immigrants who are not able to obtain a U.S. driver's license, and immigrant mothers who never learned to drive in their countries of origin because of cultural mores against women driving. Even those programs that are accessible by public transportation may be difficult to reach if the immigrant family is unable to navigate transportation schedules because of language barriers.53

Informational and Bureaucratic Barriers
The structure of ECE markets and the complex array of subsidized alternatives that exist in many states can make it challenging for immigrant families to understand all their options and pursue their preferred choice. Studies of immigrant families note that many are simply unaware of the existence or availability of the ECE programs that their children could attend. Furthermore, the research has shown that the predominant method of sharing information about child-care and early-learning programs within immigrant communities is word of mouth, not formal information provision. City agencies and child-care providers may not be effectively using direct, language-appropriate outreach or media to educate immigrant families about the options available to them.54 Yet, even if such outreach were available, immigrant families, because they rely predominantly on their co-ethnic immigrant peers to inform them of ECE options, may lack the necessary social resources and capital to understand and navigate the broad child-care market at their disposal.55

Enrollment processes in both public and private ECE programs involve complex paperwork and often long waiting lists. Immigrant parents may need to rely on community agencies to facilitate the process or to translate written or oral communications. Forms for subsidized programs can be even more complicated and time consuming because parents have to demonstrate their eligibility for the subsidy, documenting income level and, for some subsidies, employment status.56 This process can be daunting, particularly for immigrants who do not know English well or who do not have many years of formal schooling in their home country. In a study in New York City, for example, immigrant parents who were interviewed remarked that they would prefer to pay for unsubsidized center-based care or informal care by a trusted kin member or acquaintance because there would be fewer hassles and immediate enrollment.57

Another potential barrier to enrollment in center-based ECE programs is the need for a medical examination of the child or, at minimum, a certificate that the child's vaccinations are up-to-date. This additional step could dissuade some immigrants from enrolling their children in center-based programs. On average, immigrants have difficulty accessing the health care system—either because of a lack of knowledge about how to navigate the system or because of a lack of health insurance.58 Furthermore, immigrant parents who work irregular or nontraditional hours have difficulty making an appointment for their children with medical professionals who are available only during traditional hours.

Cultural Barriers
A reason often cited for lower enrollment rates of immigrants is a familistic culture that characterizes immigrants from many parts of the world and that is particularly salient for Latino immigrant families. This culture leads parents to prefer that their children be cared for at home, rather than by nonrelatives in a formal educational setting.59 And, because immigrant children are more likely to live in two-parent families, there is a preference for parental care because the parent at home can therefore promote the children's ethnic and cultural identities.60 Although the cultural explanation may have some merit, recent research has demonstrated that structural factors are a stronger influence than familistic cultural factors on immigrant children's use of center-based care.61 Immigrant parents' choice to use care by family members is largely a reflection of the care options available to them rather than a preference for informal or kin-based care.62

Another potential cultural barrier is the comfort level parents have interacting with child-care providers at a group care setting. This comfort level, in turn, can affect parental involvement in their children's child-care experience. Research has shown that parental involvement in their elementary and secondary school students' education is positively linked to students' academic and behavioral success.63 Yet, parents modify their involvement at their children's school depending on the opportunities made available to them by the school or school staff.64 If providers are not culturally sensitive or responsive, do not know the language of an immigrant family that has difficulty speaking English, or are unsupportive of immigrant families, the parents may not feel welcome and may not be responsive to requests for parent-teacher conferences or involvement in other activities. Research notes that being culturally responsive is critical in supporting parent participation, in allowing parents to communicate with the teachers to understand what is happening and to support their child's learning at home, and in developing trust in the program.65 Research on kindergarten students finds that parental involvement in early education is linked to academic and behavioral success in elementary school, yet minority immigrant parents report more barriers to participation in their children's schooling and subsequently are less likely to be involved in school than their minority native-born counterparts, even when taking into consideration family demographic, racial and ethnic, and socioeconomic characteristics.66 Immigrant parents may also prefer that their children enroll in programs that are familiar or supportive of the native language or culture.67

Barriers Created by (Mis)perceptions
A remaining set of potential barriers that can affect choices about care use for immigrant children can be labeled "perceptions," or maybe more accurately "misperceptions."As noted earlier, many immigrant children are eligible for federal or state-funded subsidized ECE programs. But the immigrant experience can result in distrust of the government and public programs, especially among those who are undocumented. In a study of Chicago immigrant parents, for example, fear of contacting public agencies was commonly cited as a reason for not enrolling their children in center-based or government- subsidized care.68 Many immigrant parents also believe that restrictions placed on public benefits for certain types of immigrants such as those who are undocumented or in specific states mean that they are ineligible for any programs funded with federal dollars.69

A group especially likely to have a suspicious view of government programs is unauthorized immigrants who fear being deported or jeopardizing their future prospects for citizenship—even if their children are U.S. citizens and even if their fears are unfounded.70 Even immigrant parents in the country legally often fear contact with public agencies. One reason is that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can deem an immigrant who is likely to become "primarily dependent on the government for subsistence" as a public charge. Such a finding can lead to severe hardships in adjusting one's immigration status (for an undocumented immigrant to become a permanent resident, for example, or for a permanent resident to become a U.S. citizen) or even lead to deportation in extreme cases.71 Research has documented that fear of a "public charge" determination lowers participation of immigrants in public benefits programs. However, enrollment in most public benefits programs, including Head Start, state preschool programs, and subsidized child care, would not qualify an immigrant as a public charge.72

Some immigrant parents are also wary of filling out documentation that requires the disclosure of sensitive information, such as a Social Security number (SSN) or immigration status. In many cases, immigrant parents believe that they need to provide an SSN to demonstrate need for subsidized child care or that they need to divulge their immigration status. However, according to the Federal Privacy Act, applicants for child-care subsidies are not required to give an SSN.73

A study of immigrants in New York City found that some immigrant families do not want to use any form of subsidized care because of the stigma associated with its use. Believing they must be self-sufficient, families are afraid that accessing subsidized care will label them as burdens on the government as well as jeopardize their immigration status and their status within their co-ethnic immigrant community.74

Immigrant parents with few years of schooling and from certain countries of origin tend to be unaware of how important early education programs are for their children's subsequent school achievement.75 They may not understand that center-based care, particularly in the preschool years, is the typical "mode of initiation into the education process for children with highly educated parents."76 Previous research has noted a positive link between the rates of early child-care enrollment in the country of origin and that immigrant group's propensity to enroll their children in preschool.77