A new policy brief from UnidosUS’s Latino Infant Initiative outlines concrete policy recommendations for helping Latino families succeed as their demographic grows

By 2060, the U.S. Latino population is expected to grow to 111 million people, and UnidosUS believes the best way to prepare for this monumental demographic shift is by bolstering support for the youngest of them. Over the past year, it has been working closely with the early childhood non-profit organization Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors to conduct surveys of Latino families and turn the needs and concerns they expressed into an agenda for policy change at the federal and state level.  

That agenda is the latest product of UnidosUS’s Latino Infant Initiative (LII), a program run in partnership with Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors and funded by a grant from the Pritzker Children’s Initiative to create and develop a network to guide the development of a national policy agenda and enable high-quality programs to Latino infants more readily.   

“The overarching goal of the Latino Infant Initiative policy agenda is to influence federal and state policies that will ensure that all Latino infants, toddlers, and their families, regardless of background or circumstances, have equitable access to high-quality, culturally and linguistically responsive programs and services that support their healthy physical, mental, and social development and learning,” explains the document, which was released in time for last month’s UnidosUS Annual Conference. “This policy agenda will provide a roadmap to the system-wide changes that are needed to advance this goal.”  

The agenda begins with a detailed explanation of how the partnering organizations have taken an equitable approach to the agenda by ensuring and acknowledging:  

  • the intersectionality of issues that Latino families experience 
  • the importance of policies that are evidence-based and informed by research  
  • the importance of policies that are child-centered and family-focused 
  • the urgent need to remove barriers to enrollment in child and family programming 

“Collaboration and coordination among service providers and systems are essential to ensuring that families can access the services they need when they need them,” the document states; then, it lays out eight goals with actionable steps for education, health, the economy, and immigration.  

Education (Goals 1-3)

  • GOAL 1: Improve access to high-quality, culturally and linguistically responsive early childhood education programs to serve more children, particularly Dual-Language Learners (DLLs). 
  • GOAL 2: Retain, support, and develop Latinos in the prenatal to age three workforce to meet the need for a diverse and qualified workforce that reflects today’s multicultural and multilingual child population.  
  • GOAL 3: Support authentic family engagement that acknowledges the historical legacy of language suppression and respects home language(s). 

These goals and recommendations begin with early childhood education (ECE) as the basis for key interventions. In fact, UnidosUS’s 2023 National Latino Family Report found that 46% of Latino families with children under the age of three have received no formal childcare since birth. Daycare programs don’t align with working hours, and limited vacancies, high transportation costs, and income thresholds for need-based services that are so narrow that they don’t correspond to the economic realities of many families are all reasons for this. Plus, low salaries and hefty educational requirements lead to high turnover among a workforce made up largely of women of color and multilingual speakers, making it much harder to create a culturally and linguistically responsive ECE system.  

To achieve this, the Latino Infant Initiative wants the federal government to hire more bilingual staff for the needs-based Head Start program, provide scholarships and other accreditation incentives for educators, and develop support systems for aspiring Latino educators to attain their degrees while employing more robust multicultural and multilingual training for the whole of the early childhood workforce. Meanwhile, it encourages states to increase salaries for early childhood educators and improve class sizes, nutritional standards, and family-engagement programming.  

The push for multilingual learning also comes with the goal of ensuring family engagement programs acknowledge the nation’s history of language suppression. At the federal level, this could mean everything from the dissemination of culturally appropriate research for families to increases in funding for home-based visitation and father engagement, as well as the development of a national Latino Infant Research-to-Practice (R2P) Center to foment evidence-based child rearing and education.  

“Research consistently highlights the critical role of family engagement in the development of Latino infants,” the agenda notes. “Studies also show that parent engagement significantly contributes to reducing the achievement gap among immigrant populations, with parent engagement playing the most significant role in increased achievement for Latinos.”  

Health (Goals 4-6) 

  • GOAL 4: Improve access to healthcare, including mental health, for pregnant women and families of infants and toddlers. 
  • GOAL 5: Improve access to healthy and affordable food for families with young children and expecting parents. 
  • GOAL 6: Address gun violence as a civil rights and public health crisis in response to community concerns for child well-being.

Closely tied to early childhood education is the goal of greater health in areas including overall coverage, mental health access, and gun violence prevention. The agenda notes that great strides were made to insure Latinos under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but 20% of Latinos still lack coverage and only half of Latinos qualify for ACA health programs. Barriers include immigration status and limitations on Medicaid, all of which exacerbate rates of inadequate prenatal and postpartum support for Latina women. Food insecurity was always high among Latinos but skyrocketed during the pandemic, and in recent studies conducted by UnidosUS and Abriendo Puertas, Latino families have rated gun violence as a constant source of fear.  

There are numerous existing and upcoming programs to help provide healthcare and nutritional services to young children and their families, and states can seek waivers to expand on who can access those and for how long, so one of the biggest asks for the federal government is that it converts these options “into guarantees that protect pregnant people, infants, and toddlers in every state.”  

The agenda also says the federal government should do more to lift barriers on programs such as Medicaid and CHIP while incentivizing states to increase culturally and linguistically appropriate mental health services for the families of young children. It says states can do their part by eliminating the existing five-year wait period on Medicaid and CHIP for lawfully residing immigrant families; providing CHIP coverage to pregnant people regardless of their immigration status; expanding health coverage for children from birth to age six; and subsidizing the costs of healthcare for families who don’t qualify for federal health and nutrition programs.  

On the topic of nutrition, the agenda reminds readers that “having access to and consuming nutritious foods provides the essential building blocks for brain development, healthy growth, and a strong immune system,” but warns that “far too many people in America, including Latino families and children, lack the basic ingredients needed for a healthy life, including consistent and affordable access to nutritious food.”  

With this in mind, LII wants to see the federal government make federal services such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) more flexible by not imposing work requirements, lifting wait periods for non-citizens, allowing for remote enrollment services, and extending the time people can be in such programs before having to recertify.  

Last but certainly not least on the health front is addressing gun violence. The agenda notes that more than 4,700 Latinos die from gun violence each year (about 13 deaths a day) and that many mass shootings have proven to be motivated by racism and homophobia, as was the case in Uvalde, TX (2022); El Paso, TX (2019); and Orlando, FL (2016). 

To help prevent this, the Latino Infant Initiative wants to see the federal government enact common-sense gun safety laws to protect schools and other sensitive locations. These can include creating more liability for gun manufacturers, better licensing and background checks, and a ban on assault weapons. And at the state level, LII wants to see similar legislation for background checks and licensing, better gun storage laws, assault weapons bans, increased training for police, gun permits for concealed weapons in public, a ban on gun licensing for people convicted of hate crimes, funding for community violence intervention, and greater mental health support for families affected by gun violence.  

The Economy (Goal 7)  

  • GOAL 7: Improve the economic well-being of pregnant women and families of infants and toddlers. 

Lifting people out of poverty, especially communities disproportionately affected, is also a key area of concern for the Latino Infant Initiative. With that in mind, the agenda notes that Latinos have a “higher-than-average labor force participation rate, start businesses at higher rates than their non-Hispanic counterparts, and wield significant purchasing power. Yet they remain overrepresented in low-wage occupations.” It also points out that Latinas, including those who are mothers, represent a growing share of the female workforce but make vastly lower wages.  

“For every year that non-Latino white men work, Latinas must work an extra 10 months to make the same amount of money,” the agenda notes.  

Other contributing factors to poverty rates among Latinos include lack of access to housing and paid family leave and discrepancies in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) which doesn’t always extend to some immigrant families. To address these concerns, the Latino Infant Initiative wants to see the federal government adopt the Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) to help Latino workers with time off due to illness or caring for a newborn; push for equal pay for Latinas; implement tax codes that reduce poverty among workers and their families, including those who are immigrants; and improve the pathway to homeownership through access to credit, an increase in the housing supply, and greater representation of Latino leadership in the agencies that regulate housing.  

Immigration (GOAL 8)  

  • GOAL 8: Pass policies that address the needs of all children and center the dignity and humanity of immigrants and their families. 

Most Latino children in the United States are U.S.-born. Still, they often live in mixed-status families where other members may be completely undocumented or have some sort of temporary status, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) or Temporary Protected Status (TPS). People in these immigration categories are ineligible for most federal assistance programs, exposing small children to an array of traumatic situations involving financial struggle, fear of authority, and even deportation. To mitigate these risks, LII is calling on the federal government to enact comprehensive immigration reform, push judges to consider the hardships of family separation due to deportation, and conduct training of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who may be in regular contact with children and their families and have a role to play in minimizing the terror and stress on the community. 

Bringing the Agenda and the Stakeholders Together 

“The demographic imperative compels urgent and strong action: local, state, and federal policymakers must work together to develop, finance, and implement equitable and effective policy solutions,” the agenda states, and that message was ever present during the various meetings and sessions at the 2023 UnidosUS Annual Conference in July.  

Panelists’ own lived experiences served as a reminder of what leadership roles today’s young Latinos might one day have in this country.  

Parents with baby by window

“I’m a product of Family, Friends and Neighbor programs (FFN). My mom took me to friends before leaving for work every morning,” said Teresa Granillo, who has dedicated the past two decades of her career to ECE research and interventions. Dr. Teresa Granillo is the CEO of the Texas-based UnidosUS Affiliate AVANCE, Inc., a non-profit that supports Latino families with young children to achieve social and economic justice through innovative, holistic, two-generation education programs.    

Panelist Javier Martínez, the managing director of national policy for Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors and the 31st Speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, noted that he gained his subject matter knowledge spending his earliest years as the child of immigrants along the southern border. “We know what our Latino community needs; our work is centered on our policy systems around it,” he said. 

Unidos US Early Childhood Education Programs Director Robert Stechuk seconded that in a comment to ProgressReport. “Latino infants have been change agents for several decades, reshaping the United States. This will continue for decades to come,” he said. “Today’s Latino infants are the U.S. workforce of tomorrow. It is urgent that we invest in supports for Latino families to ensure the healthy development and effective learning of their babies.”