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November 5, 2018

Could “public charge” reduce public preschool participation among immigrant families?

November 5, 2018

The potential impacts of expanding the regulation known as “public charge” have yet to be fully understood, but experts anticipate that young children in immigrant families—more than 90 percent of them US citizens—could be disproportionately affected.

The proposed rule could make it more difficult for noncitizens to obtain green cards or temporary visas by negatively weighing several factors during the immigration admissions process, including current or potential participation in safety net programs such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Although it would not count benefit use among US-born children against a parent’s application for permanent residency, families were already turning away from programs before the rule was posted for a 60-day comment period on October 10.   

The public charge regulation and its associated chilling effect—when individuals and families avoid public services they are eligible for—could have far-reaching consequences. One in four American infants, toddlers, and preschoolers has at least one immigrant parent, and nearly all these children are American citizens. Because these children will make up a growing share of our future workforce, programs that support their health, well-being, cognitive development, and school readiness are vital to communities and the broader economy.

Participation in publicly funded early care and education programs—including Head Start, prekindergarten, child care subsidies, and home visiting programs—are not included in the proposed regulation as potential negative factors in public charge determinations. Yet, these programs, which offer important supports for young children and their families, may experience the broader chilling effect and have greater difficulty connecting families with health care, nutrition, and housing assistance.

Two recent qualitative studies highlight the importance of early care and education programs in the lives of immigrant families with young children and capture shifting attitudes toward these programs from late 2016 until late 2017. This period was characterized by a series of immigration proposals and policy changes, including a version of public charge leaked in early 2017, ramped up enforcement efforts, threats to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status programs, changes to the immigration court system, and cuts to the refugee resettlement program.

Risks to gains in prekindergarten enrollment

Our study of access to preschool among families of immigrants captured growing uncertainty among immigrant families in the months after the November 2016 election.

As early care and education policy researchers, we wanted to know how communities that had achieved unusually high prekindergarten enrollment among children in immigrant families had eased barriers to access. Conducted from November 2016 to February 2017, our research focused on four study sites—Atlanta, Georgia; Dearborn, Michigan; Houston, Texas; and King County, Washington—that have narrowed prekindergarten enrollment gaps between children of immigrants and children with US-born parents.

Through interviews with more than 130 immigrant parents and more than 100 stakeholders—principals, teachers, support staff, administrators, and partners in immigrant-serving organizations—we identified core strategies providers had undertaken to establish trust and boost enrollment among immigrant families. These strategies include robust welcoming efforts, enrollment and language supports, a commitment to continuous quality improvement, a strong referral network to community-based organizations that serve immigrant families, resources to navigate the greater immigration policy context, and safe and inclusive environments for families.

What we also gleaned from our interviews with parents and providers was a growing sense of unease. We heard that changes in federal immigration policy could erode gains these programs have made in closing enrollment gaps and establishing trusted ties with immigrant communities.

Though parents viewed preschool as a safe place, some expressed concern about having to provide documentation during the application process or fears over encountering law enforcement while transporting children to and from school. That prekindergarten is optional also factored in. As one parent put it, “[I]t’s not required, so why risk it?” Some parents indicated that evolving immigration policies could influence their decision to enroll their child in prekindergarten programs in the future.

Although prekindergarten staff and administrators hadn’t detected enrollment drops during the time of our interviews, they described concerns among parents and their own uncertainty about enrollment over the coming year because of a rapidly changing immigration policy environment. Stakeholders articulated a strong desire to “encapsulate our families and keep them safe as much as we can and as soon as we can.”

Persistent fear and documented enrollment drops

Many of our observations were echoed in a subsequent study by the Center for Law and Social Policy that focused on the mental and emotional health of young children in immigrant families in the context of harsher immigration policies.

The study, conducted in mid-2017, documented five major areas of impact on young children: persistent fear and anxiety that their parents would be taken away, interruptions of daily routines, reluctance of parents to enroll or reenroll in nutrition assistance programs or seek medical care, more economic and housing instability for the entire family, and greater emotional and financial stress on parents and early care and education providers.

A companion paper fleshed out perspectives from early care and education program providers, who reported drops in enrollment, decreased parent participation, and difficulties connecting families to health and nutrition programs.

Providers reported fewer applications and referrals across program types—home visiting, early childhood, and parent education—and fewer parents visiting classrooms to volunteer. Providers attributed these declines to both fear of immigration consequences for participating in publicly funded programs and fear of encountering immigration enforcement agents in public places.

Ongoing monitoring is critical

Given the rapidly evolving immigration policy context and the important role early care and education providers play in the lives of young children and parents, it will be critical to track how children, parents, and providers respond to the proposed public charge rule.

If immigrant families opt out of early care and education programs or health and other social service programs, it could have negative consequences for their children’s school readiness and broader cognitive, linguistic, and social-emotional development. Elementary schools could face the additional costs of serving children who haven’t benefited from preschool or vital health and nutrition programs. And our economy could miss out on future gains in educational attainment, labor force participation, and productivity.

Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images.

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