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Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011

Early Care and Education for Children in Immigrant Families
Lynn A. Karoly Gabriella C. Gonzalez


Researchers and policy makers have long recognized the importance of early care and education (ECE) programs in promoting healthy development before children enter school and in shaping their success once they begin school. But do these programs hold the same promise for immigrant children? This article explores the current role of and future potential for early childhood education for the large and growing segment of immigrant children.

According to data from the 2005–06 American Community Survey, of the 15.7 million immigrant children in the United States, nearly 5.7 million are age five or younger.1 Nationally, immigrant children make up about 24 percent of the under-six age group, and that share reaches as high as 50 percent in California. Although 94 percent of these youngest immigrant children were born in the United States, they are more likely than their native-born counterparts with native-born parents to face a variety of circumstances that place them at risk of developmental delay and poor academic performance once they enter school. Among immigrant children under age eighteen, for instance, 28 percent are in a linguistically isolated household where no one age fourteen or older speaks English "very well," 26 percent have parents without a high school degree, and 22 percent have family income below the poverty line.2 At the same time immigrant children are a heterogeneous group. Many live in families where English is spoken fluently, parents are well educated, and the family enjoys a high standard of living.

As Robert Crosnoe and Ruth Turley discuss in more depth in their article in this volume, researchers and policy makers have long taken the view that elementary and secondary education supports the economic and cultural assimilation of immigrant children, but schools can also reinforce existing disparities associated with race and ethnicity, country of origin, and English fluency. The potential for high-quality early-learning settings to advance school readiness and academic achievement in absolute terms and to narrow gaps between less advantaged and more advantaged groups of children has spurred greater interest in promoting access to such programs, especially for disadvantaged children.3 Growing policy support for early care and education more generally stems from advances in brain research demonstrating the importance of the first few years of life in laying a foundation for healthy cognitive, emotional, social, and physical development.4 Thus, especially for disadvantaged immigrant children, it is important to understand the extent to which children already participate in ECE settings and the quality of those experiences, the potential benefits that might be expected from being in such programs, and the nature of the barriers that may preclude children who could benefit from participation. An understanding of these issues can then shape a policy agenda to remedy any issues identified with access and quality.

Our scope in this article covers child care and early-learning programs in home- and center-based settings that serve children from birth to their entry into kindergarten. Because the research base specific to immigrant children is richer for preschool-age children and center-based programs than it is for infants and toddlers and home-based care, we offer some original data analysis of ECE use and quality to complement previous research. In both our data analysis and literature review, we define immigrant children as those who are foreign-born or native-born with one or both parents being foreign-born, groups that represent first- and second-generation immigrants, respectively. (Given that the first-generation group is so small among immigrant children under age six, sample sizes limit our ability to examine ECE patterns by immigrant generation.) We refer to children who are native-born with native-born parents as nonimmigrants or natives. This classification of immigrant status for children may differ from definitions in other studies of ECE use and impact. We note such differences when relevant.