“If Congress pulls the Dream Act, I would lose seven staff members. It’s huge.”
Nancy is the director of a rural Midwestern Head Start center. Like many people across the country, she is concerned about the fate of nearly 800,000 young immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. Nancy’s Head Start program employs seven teachers who are protected by DACA. She worries about how her program will continue to operate if she loses those teachers.
Over the past year, President Donald Trump has relentlessly targeted immigrants’ rights, rescinding DACA; ending the humanitarian Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program for countries such as El Salvador and Haiti; deporting long-time community members who are parents of U.S. citizens; taking aim at family reunification policies; turning his back on refugees; and making racist comments about immigrants’ countries of origin—to name only a few actions. In addition to instilling fear and uncertainty into immigrant communities across the country, these anti-immigrant actions are putting added strain on the early childhood workforce, a group that is largely comprised of immigrant women.**
Although President Trump promised to promote access to child care for families during his campaign, he has overlooked the fact that child care relies on early educators and that immigrants play an integral role in the nation’s early childhood workforce. Enacting policies that threaten the security and well-being of immigrants and their families directly undermines America’s child care system, representing yet another broken promise from the Trump administration.
Immigrants are the backbone of the early childhood workforce and the nation’s economy
According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are approximately 2 million early childhood educators in the United States, at least one-fifth of whom are immigrants. Immigrants are overrepresented in the informal child care industry and are more likely to work for private families or in home-based child care settings than in formal center-based settings. American families and the United States economy rely heavily on the important work of these women each day, as they educate and nurture millions of children while enabling parents to work. Without access to child care, families face significant barriers to economic security, and employers struggle to retain a productive workforce.
Demand for quality child care in the United States is steadily growing: The vast majority of young children now have one or both parents in the workforce, and consensus about the importance of quality early childhood education continues to build. As demand for child care has increased, immigrants have played an outsized role in filling the need for early educators, taking positions that may otherwise remain unfilled. In the past 20 years, the number of immigrants in the early childhood workforce has tripled, while the number of native-born educators has grown by just 38 percent. Child care is a growing industry and supporting immigrant educators is critical for bolstering a dedicated, qualified early childhood workforce.
Early educators who are immigrants possess valuable skills that should be embraced
Nancy would have a hard time replacing the teachers in her center. She explains that their “expertise in another language, culture, and understanding of the role of immigrant families in the community” makes them invaluable additions to her staff. In Nancy’s rural area, there is a limited supply of qualified early educators, let alone teachers with the skills necessary to provide care to children that is both developmentally and culturally appropriate.
In 2016, a quarter of children under the age of 5 lived in an immigrant family. As the population of young children in the United States is increasingly diverse, it is critical that educators reflect the cultural and linguistic backgrounds of the families they serve. A bilingual teacher, for example, is equipped to support the language development of a bilingual child, who may be learning English in school while speaking another language at home. That same teacher is also able to better communicate with the child’s parents and engage them in their child’s education—something that is vital for a child’s healthy cognitive and emotional development.
Threatening the security and well-being of immigrant educators and their families could also harm the children in their care
Early childhood educators do critical work but are so woefully underpaid that they often can barely provide for their own families. In addition to this economic stress, immigrant educators in Trump’s America are now facing fear and upheaval in their families and communities.
This additional stress directly undermines the quality of care that educators are able to provide to children. Providing care that promotes healthy child development requires a great deal of attention as well as physical and emotional energy from caregivers. But it becomes incredibly difficult for early educators to offer this kind of quality care when they are stressed about being able to feed their families or are in constant fear that they or a loved one could be arrested or deported. Moreover, young children look to their caregivers for emotional cues as they are learning how to understand the world around them. If they see that their caregiver is feeling sad or scared, they receive the message that they should feel the same way; when young children experience this kind of stress during a critical period in early childhood, it can hinder their healthy development.
Immigrant early educators must be supported, not targeted
Regardless of their immigration status, early educators are critical to children’s early education and our nation’s continued economic prosperity. When President Trump attacks immigrants, he is also undermining the early education system that so many families rely on. In early childhood education and beyond, immigrants are a key pillar of our economy. Instead of targeting immigrants and their families with draconian policies, Congress must pass the Dream Act immediately so that no more DACA recipients lose their protection. Policymakers should also focus their efforts on enacting workplace protections for immigrants and adequately funding the child care system to pay all early childhood educators a living wage.
Leila Schochet is the research and advocacy manager for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress.
*Author’s note: The author has changed the name of the director profiled in this column to protect her identity.
**Author’s note: Here, the early childhood workforce includes private home-based child care workers; family-based child care workers; center-based child care workers; teaching assistants; preschool teachers; and directors of early childhood programs, as defined in the 2012 American Community Survey.