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When deportation fears keep kids out of preschool: a Florida case study

For a 16 year-old, Armando Bautista knows a lot about cucumbers.

As a small child he helped his parents, both migrant farmworkers in the U.S. illegally, plant and pick cucumbers in vast fields from Michigan to Florida. The high schooler now has his hopes set on being a mechanic. But these days he spends his time worrying about his parents and how his little sister’s preschool attendance is putting his family in jeopardy.

"My parents don’t have papers and I worry about them every day before they go to work," he said. "They could get stopped by the police and they could get deported and, like, who would take care of my brothers and sisters?"

Bautista’s parents have picked strawberries, blueberries, cucumbers and just about every U.S. grown crop over the last two decades in farms around the country. They move, children and all, as crop seasons change. They always spend winters in Florida.

For children of migrant farmworker families, life can be tough. Older kids are enrolled in local public schools, and may change schools multiple times in a year. But children under 5 were often taken by parents to the farms, running alongside as they worked. This was not only dangerous, it was far from a stimulating early childhood experience.

In 1969 Congress recognized those challenges and created a special branch of the Head Start program specifically to serve the children of farmworkers. In South Florida, the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) has run head start centers for children of farmworkers since 1981. It’s one of these very centers that the youngest Bautista child attends.

And over the last few months, 16-year-old Armando has conducted a daily risk assessment of whether the benefits of his little sister’s early education outweigh the risk of his dad simply driving her to and from preschool.

"I say she should go to school so she can learn," Bautista said. "But at the same time it's worrying because my parents could get stopped while just taking [her] to preschool."

It’s a situation that many farmworker families find themselves in, said Lourdes Villanueva, director of programs for RCMA. In fact, for the first time in its history, RCMA is struggling to fill its head start classrooms. This year the program has a gulf of unfilled seats, 43 percent in fact.

At its 25 centers across South Florida, RCMA has capacity to serve 1,700 children under 5. In early December they had filled just 974 seats. "Never before had we been under enrolled, until this year," Villanueva said.

"Literally from the day of the election to the next day, we were like, 'what happened to the kids?'"

During the contentious election campaign, fear spread among parents who are in the U.S. illegally that they will be deported. Families hunkered down, Villanueva said. Parks seem emptier, and even going to church on Sunday is riddled with fear for what will happen if the car gets stopped by law enforcement, Villanueva said.

It’s a four-and-a-half mile drive each way for the Bautista family to get to the head start center from home. Armando worries that if his father gets pulled over for any reason, he won’t be able to produce a driver’s license, and that will surely get him arrested, which could end in deportation. In Florida, where the family lives, immigration status is required to get a license.

The Bautista family has cut out all non-essential trips. Armando’s parents drive to work and back, stopping along the way for any groceries, and there’s the daily preschool drop off and pick up. But that’s it. The older kids walk or ride the bus to school.

Bautista believes president-elect, Donald Trump, will make good on his promise to deport all unauthorized immigrants. Many farmworker families, immigrants from Mexico and Central America, are also afraid and have retreated into fear-bubbles.

In South Florida, this fear has trickled down to directly impact children under 5 who are not showing up to preschool.

Unique population

Young children of migrant farmworkers have special needs. "There are so many obstacles for migrant children," said Cleofas Rodriguez Jnr., who runs the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association.

Many parents don’t speak English, and many are first-generation immigrants, unfamiliar with the education and health systems of the country. When Migrant and Seasonal Head Start was created, it had to operate unlike most preschool programs, he said.

"Families are leaving at 4 o’clock to go to work," he said. "They’re working ten to 12 hours days and so the program had to be customized to meet the demands of the families."

To qualify for the program, there are also very different requirements on parents than for regular Head Start enrollment. For one, parents have to be working, and have to earn 51 percent of their income from work in agriculture. Parents also have to prove they have traveled between states in the space of a year to work in different farms.

If families meet these basic requirements, migrant head start programs serve not just their babies and preschoolers with early education, there are health and dental services, transportation if required, even immigration help.

Rodriguez said the program does so much more than just provide services, however. He cites the parent education classes, the one-on-one work teachers do with parents to help them learn how to advocate for their children inside the education system.

Migrant Head Start "set the foundation," Rodriguez said. "It’s going to set the road a child will follow to their ultimate goal of graduating from high school and going on to colleges and universities, and many of them do."

Fear spreading

In a rural patch of Wimauma, Florida, an area where vast tracts of land sport rows and rows of planted berries, a migrant head start center sits squarely in the middle of open plan housing complex. La Estancia Head Start is surrounded by squat cinderblock homes, mostly occupied by migrant farmworkers. A long driveway juts off the main road, there are houses on both sides, and it arrives at the door of the preschool.

This head start center has the capacity for 53 children, and each year it fills up quickly.

But this year there are still vacant seats, said Felipa Garza, center director.

"We’re still looking for children," she said. "We have a lot of parents that are not traveling anymore with the fear of getting pulled over, getting incarcerated, getting deported." And if they don’t travel between states, "our migrant services can’t be provided for them," Garza said.

Police stopping a car for simple things like a taillight being out opens up the driver to arrest once it is discovered there is no driver's license. That’s one part of the reason she said her enrollment is down: parents just aren't driving between states.

The other reason has to do with fearing immigration enforcement officials. Garza said she sees them drive around town. She's even seen them around her Head Start center.

"Where I work at now, you can see the immigration truck drives inside the community apartment," she said. "We've been fortunate that it will do it's rounds and then leaves. But there is another [Head Start] center close by us and it goes by there."

Tammy Spicer, public information officer for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Tampa area said her agency "has not conducted any activity in the region you referenced." ICE also said it has a policy to not target schools. Garza says she knows what an immigration vehicle looks like.

Whether ICE did or did not drive by the Head Start center and apartment complex almost doesn’t matter, said immigration attorney Diana Castro. People are just scared, she said.

"They are fearful because of what they hear, because of the [election] campaign," she said. "The rhetoric was anti-immigrant.  With Trump being elected they think it is almost something automatic that they are going to be picked up and deported, which is not true."

It’s a very real fear for Flordila Morales, a farmworker whose young child attends the RCMA Academy Head Start Center in Wimauma. Morales said all the parents she knows are afraid of deportation.

"We didn’t used to be afraid because we weren’t seen as a threat," Morales said. "But now with this new president, he sees us as a threat and he wants to throw us out."

Fear trickles down

While Armando Bautista’s littlest siblings don’t carry the fear of their parents' possible deportation like he does, the 16-year-old knows they worry. He said he and his parents try very hard not to talk about these issues in front of them.

"We don’t talk about it with my little brothers and sisters because they don’t understand it," he said. "They’re still kids and since I’m older I understand more than they do."

Young children do feel their parents anxiety, said Lourdes Villanueva of RCMA. "The stress also translates to the kids," she said. When they drop off the children she sometimes can’t stand to be around. "They will do the bendicion, give them a kiss, and leave them there, but they know that they’re on the road going to work and they may not come back to pick up the kid."

Staff at RCMA centers have been helping parents plan for the event that they are picked up and cannot retrieve their children, Villanueva said. They are working with parents on power of attorney documents that state who will take care of their children if they get arrested or deported.

While the reality of the empty preschool seats might signal a win for supporters of stricter immigration enforcement, Villanueva does not want to see the children of these migrant farmworkers miss out on early education.

Nor does Cleofas Rodriguez Jr. of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association. Everyone loses if children of farmworkers are kept out of preschool, he said. These will be the kids who show up in kindergarten far behind the rest, and that impacts the entire classroom, Rodriguez said.

"There’s so many obstacles and so many barriers that migrant and seasonal children experience, the outcome at the end without an experience like [head start] is devastating."

Growers too are concerned. Gary Wishnatzki, owner of Wish Farms that sells strawberries to major retailers like Costco, remembers the days when children would be brought to the fields, something he described as "dangerous."

"It would be a tragedy if kids don't get head start benefits because of fear that they were going to be deported or their parents were going to be deported," Wishnatzki said.

And for the children who do get dropped off every day to migrant head start, Cleofas Rodriguez Jr. worries about the trauma they might be suffering too.

"It’s a tragedy when a four year-old asks, 'Are you going to be there when I get home?'" he said.

Villanueva said preschoolers notice when someone's parents don't come to pick them up. "These are things we see, and now, lately, even more so." So her staff have an extra early childhood lesson to teach children: how to self-soothe when you're feeling anxious.