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 Slideshow: When deportation fears keep kids out of preschool: a Florida case study | 89.3 KPCC: