NYC preschools are training teachers what to do if immigration authorities come knocking

An unexplained absence can set off alarm bells for Marnie Montalvo, a pre-K teacher at Little Star of Broome Street on the Lower East Side. 

Many of her students come from immigrant families, so her mind races to the possibility that a child didn’t make it to school because a caregiver was detained or deported.

“If you don’t see a certain child coming to the school, or you don’t see the parent, you’re wondering,” she said. “And when you see them, it’s a relief. I’m like, ‘OK. Good. They’re here.’”

In New York City, more than a million children have at least one foreign-born parent. And the Trump administration’s ramped up immigration enforcement and pursuit of policies that make it harder to remain legally in the country have put immigrant families on edge — undocumented or not. 

In this climate of fear, misinformation and rumors can spread in online messages and through word of mouth. But preschool centers are in a unique place to pass along information to families, who may be more likely to trust the advice they get from staff who take care of their children all day.

That’s why the Chinese-American Planning Council, a social services provider that enrolls about 300 children in publicly subsidized preschool programs in New York City, is making sure all of its school staffers are ready with information, and even step-by-step plans in the unlikely event immigration agents come knocking. 

 “We’re trying to avoid families really fearing and avoiding getting services,” said Mary Cheng, director of early childhood services for the council. 

At Little Star, a planning council center that is tucked into the basement of a public housing tower, a sign on the front door declares in English and Chinese that the school is a safe space for immigrants. 

The council caters to many Chinese and Asian immigrants, a community that has been hit especially hard by stepped up federal enforcement actions in New York City. Deportations here jumped by more than 150 percent in 2018, compared with 2016, and Chinese immigrants make more than 20 percent of court proceedings — the largest of any other nationality, according to a report by the comptroller’s office.

Immigrant families have also had to navigate ever-changing and stricter federal regulations. Carlyn Cowen, who heads policy and public affairs for the council, said the effects were immediate when news broke that the administration was considering a harsher interpretation of the “public charge” rule, which could make it harder for immigrants to get a green card if they’ve used certain government benefits. 

Previously full of of families looking for help enrolling for food or health assistance, the center’s waiting rooms emptied out in the immediate aftermath of the public charge proposal. Some began to pull out of programs for preschool, healthcare, and housing, Cowen said — all anti-poverty programs that have been proved to impact a child’s performance in school. 

“Literally, in order to keep providing our services, we need to do more to address the climate of fear,” she said. “In a lot of ways, it really just became a necessity.” 

The council has taken steps to make sure preschool staffers have the most up-to-date information about immigration issues, with training for directors and email blasts to teachers. School staff could direct families to other organizations that focus on immigration issues, but Cheng said some might be reluctant to follow up.

“They only trust certain people,” Cheng said of the families the council serves.“What tends to happen a lot of times is the families say, ‘Yeah, I’ll reach out to them.’ But they don’t trust in their own level of [English] proficiency or they don’t trust the outside program. So they’d rather hear from us.” 

The council is also making sure its daycare centers are ready if immigration agents land at their doorstep, training key staff members in what the laws are, which questions to ask, and even how to read a warrant. 

“We are a front line for a lot of the families,” Cheng said. 

Preschool teachers across the country who were surveyed by CLASP, an anti-poverty policy organization, said the fear many of their families face has spilled into the classroom. Teachers noted longer bouts of separation anxiety after children were dropped off at school, an uptick in aggressive behavior, and, for one little boy in Georgia, such intense stress that he began biting his fingers until they bled. 

The council has relied in part on guidelines recently drafted by CLASP, which stands for the Center for Law and Social Policy, to help early childhood providers support immigrant families. Rebecca Ullrich, a policy analyst with CLASP, said her organization heard from centers across the country that were feeling the pressure put on foreign-born parents, but were unsure how to take action. 

Unlike public schools, many preschools are independently run and don’t have support from a central agency. In New York City, the education department has been quick to reassure immigrant families that they are safe on campus, no matter their documentation status. But most students attending universal pre-K here are enrolled in a community center-based program like Little Star.

“People had this looming sense that it was possible someone could come to their center but had no idea what they would do, or could do,” Ullrich said. 

CLASP’s guide has a step-by-step script for interacting with immigration agents, and tips for marking property as private to deter authorities. 

Ullrich called it “worst case scenario” planning, since preschools are usually considered sensitive locations by immigration authorities. Like churches and hospitals, agents are supposed to refrain from accessing them except in certain cases, like when someone might pose an immediate threat to safety. 

“This is ultimately an issue that early childhood programs are contending with all over the country,” Ullrich said. “You can’t care for and educate a young child if they don’t have enough food to eat, they’re in unstable housing or they’re living in fear of their parent being taken from them because of immigration enforcement.”