Including Immigrant Mothers in the Child Care Discussion

Before coming to Fletcher, I worked in the development office of a non-profit organization that provided early childhood education and youth services.  Throughout my time there, I learned a lot about the issues plaguing the early education and child care field.  And as someone interested in migration, I was especially curious about the intersection between immigration and child care.  In general, I found the child care debate devotes little attention to the effect of child care policies on immigrant families, and more specifically on immigrant mothers. 

Recently, the media has paid increasing attention to the lack of affordable early education and child care for working parents in the United States.  Child care can be obscenely expensive – while the average cost of child care in the U.S. is $9,000 to $9,600, that figure does not demonstrate the great regional differences across the country. [1]  For example, in the Northeast states (such as Massachusetts), the average cost of care for two children can skyrocket to $26,000 – a number inarguably high. [2] 

The issue of quality, affordable early education and child care is important for multiple reasons.  First, research overwhelmingly demonstrates the importance of early education and preschool for school-readiness. [3]  Significant educational gaps start developing even before children enter elementary school. [4]  It is well established that the sooner a child enters a formal educational setting, the better – because then there is less time for learning gaps to develop. [5]  These gaps are particularly salient for children of immigrants. [6]

Secondly, child care helps women stay in the workforce.  In the last Democratic Presidential Debate, one question came from a mother whose child care cost 2/3 of her income, so she decided to quit her job to stay at home instead – a not uncommon story. [7]  The Center for American Progress conducted a survey in 2018 that found mothers were 40 percent more likely than fathers to say that child care issues negatively impacted their careers. [8]  The 2016 Early Childhood Program Participation Survey found similar results – mothers were significantly less likely to be employed if they were unable to find a child care program, but the same was not true for fathers. [9]  The United States also has areas called “child care deserts,” where few if any formal child care programs exist.  Certain families are more affected by child care deserts – families living in rural areas, immigrant families, and Hispanic and American Indian or Alaska Native families.  In child care desert areas, there tend to be fewer mothers participating in the workforce. [10]  Clearly, child care is a gendered issue, and it’s important to focus on the effects of child care policies on women.

The debate should also pay more attention to how child care policies affect different groups of women.  For example, more attention should be focused on immigrant parents, especially because immigrant families are less likely to enter formal early education and child care centers.  One reason why this is so is access.  The United States does not have universal preschool, and the availability of affordable and accessible preschool varies greatly by state.  Research demonstrates that children of immigrants enroll in early education at much lower rates than native children. [11]  Studies show, for example, that the children of Mexican and Central American immigrants are less likely to enter formal preschool settings when preschool is not universally available. [12]  As mentioned, learning gaps can grow between children who do and do not participate in formal preschool programs.  Immigrant children are already at a disadvantage when they enter primary school, and inequalities compound over time. [13]

Various barriers exist that prevent immigrant parents from accessing early education.  One such barrier is the work schedule inflexibility of many child care centers.  Lower income immigrants in particular tend to have uncommon working hours – either working night shifts or having unpredictable, “volatile” schedules. [14]  Child care centers generally have conventional working hours, which would leave immigrant parents in the lurch when they have to work nights, weekends, or more than 10 hours at a time. [15]  Another barrier is language and cultural differences.  One study demonstrates that parents with limited English proficiency were half as likely to obtain financial assistance for child care, which suggests language is a barrier for early education access. [16]  In addition, immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, are generally less likely to access public benefits, such as vouchers for early education and child care.  This “climate of fear and mistrust” stems from their worries about legal status and deportation. [17] 

In 2017, 5,675,000 children between the ages 0 and 5 had at least one immigrant parent (25 percent of all children ages 0 to 5). [18]  In the United States, universal child care is a first necessary step toward improving access to and the affordability of early education and child care.  However, policies should also specifically address the difficulties and challenges immigrant parents face when looking for formal care for their children under 5 years old. 

Written by: Rebecca Mullaley, F21

[1] Ashley Fetters, “The Working-to-Afford-Child-Care Conundrum,” The Atlantic, January 18, 2020,

[2] Fetters, “Working-to-Afford-Child-Care.”

[3] Lynn A. Karoly, M. Rebecca Kilburn and Jill S. Cannon, “Proven Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions,” RAND Corporation, 2005.

[4] Robert Crosnoe, “Early Child Care and the School Readiness of Children from Mexican Immigrant Families,” International Migration Review 41, no. 1 (2007): 155.

[5] Richard Alba, Jennifer Sloan, and Jessica Sperling, “The Integration Imperative: The Children of Low-Status Immigrants in the Schools of Wealthy Societies,” Annual Review of Sociology 37, no. 37 (2011): 402-403.

[6] Alba et al., “The Integration Imperative,” 396.

[7] Fetters, “Working-to-Afford-Child-Care.”

[8] Leila Schochet, “The Child Care Crisis is Keeping Women Out of the Workforce,” Center for American Progress, March 28, 2019,

[9] Schochet, “Child Care Crisis.”

[10] Schochet, “Child Care Crisis.”

[11] Erica Greenberg, Molly Michie, and Gina Adams, “Expanding Preschool Access for Children of Immigrants,” Urban Institute, February 2018, 1.

[12] Alba et al., “The Integration Imperative,” 402.

[13] Crosnoe, “Early Child Care,” 155.

[14] Liz Ben-Ishai, Hannah Matthews and Jodie Levin-Epstein, “Scrambling for Stability: The Challenges of Job Schedule Volatility and Child Care,” CLASP, March 2014. 

[15] Greenberg et al., “Expanding Preschool Access,” 28.

[16] Emily Firgens and Hannah Matthews, “State Child Care Policies for Limited English Proficient Families,” CLASP, October 2012.

[17] Krista M. Pereira et al., “Barriers to Immigrants Access to Health and Human Services Programs,” Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, May 25, 2012. 

[18] “Children in U.S. Immigrant Families,” Migration Policy Institute, Accessed January 26, 2020,