UnidosUS’s Latino Infant Initiative Brings Data, Recommendations to Capitol Hill

UnidosUS has long advocated for the rights of Hispanic youth, and today, as those children make up a growing number of the United States’ early childhood population, UnidosUS is taking the lead in advocating for their future. In early February, the organization took a five-member delegation to Capitol Hill to present a briefing titled “Investing in the Future: Advancing a National Latino Infant Policy Agenda.”  

– Author Julienne Gage is a former UnidosUS Senior Web Content Manager who currently serves the organization as a consultant. 

The briefing is the latest fruit of a now two-year effort by UnidosUS and its partner Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors known as the Latino Infant Initiative (LII), whose goal is to improve the outlook for a demographic of children who will make up more than 50% of the K-12 public school population by 2050.   

The LII leverages the networks of its members to strengthen content knowledge and increase program capacity to provide high-quality services for Latino infants prenatally through age three (PN-3).  

“This has truly been a labor of love for the past year and a half with our project partner Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors,” UnidosUS Education Policy Project Director Amalia Chamorro said in her remarks to introduce briefing sponsor Representative Teresa Leger Fernández of New Mexico. 

Chamorro called Leger Fernández “a close ally, friend, and champion to UnidosUS because she has such a strong record for standing up for children, families, and workers and for fighting for full equity and inclusion of this Hispanic community,” noting that the congresswoman sits on the House Rules Committee, the Natural Resources Committee, and the Education Committee, and is also the Vice Chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus, a staunch advocate for strong, pro-family, and early childhood policies. She has also fought for billions of dollars in additional financial support for childcare and has succeeded in passing a bill in the U.S. Congress that approved New Mexico’s Constitutional amendment for increased early childhood education funding.  

“That was monumental,” added Chamorro as robust applause broke out from the audience, “and kudos to New Mexico for getting it done.”  

In celebration of a vibrant multicultural and multilingual society, Leger Fernández came to the podium speaking first in Spanish, then transitioned into an impassioned speech about the importance of holding onto a vision for early childhood services even when funding gets cut or becomes limited.  

Este es el momento. Este es el momento. This is the moment when we decide whether we invest in what we believe. ​And when we invest in our children, we are investing in not just what we believe, but we are investing in our future,” said Leger Fernández, who brought together over 100 attendees for the event. Those included 50 Congressional staff, and five representatives of the LII’s 16-member advisory council, which is made up of Latino parents, advocates, and program staff.  

Leger Fernández’s main policy agenda is to promote the Child Tax Credit which offers tax breaks to enhance economic security for lower and middle-class families. However, she is also an outspoken advocate of the federally funded Head Start program which provides early education to underserved children from prenatal through pre-school. In fact, she credited her ability to be working in Congress to her own childhood Head Start experience, one which taught her to be curious.  

She also noted that diversifying the early education workforce and encouraging multilingual learning are two important ways to help an increasingly diverse population of youngsters become both curious and confident as they grow.  

“We need all of that in our school so that when those babies look up, they have somebody who understands them”, she said. “When we feel strong in who we are and what our language is and who our identity is, guess what? We forget to hate. We forget that there are issues that divide us.”  

What’s on the Latino Infant Policy Agenda?  

The Latino Infant Initiative Policy Agenda aims to improve on a number of areas where Latino families are struggling. For example, about 20% of Latino families have no health insurance, they’re twice as likely as white families to experience food insecurity, one in five of their children have already been exposed to gun violence, and Latinx parents are about 40% more likely than other parents to experience postpartum depression.  

“This is not just a Latino issue, and it’s not just a children’s issue. It’s an American     issue because how we serve our Latino children today will impact how America is going to be tomorrow,” said UnidosUS Early Childhood Senior Policy Analyst Tania Villarroel, noting that today, one in four babies in the U.S. are Latino, and that number is expected to jump to one in three by 2061.  ”This is how fast the Latino population is growing. They are the workers, the innovators, and the leaders who will drive our economy and democracy in the coming decades. But right now, these infants and toddlers are facing huge gaps in education and healthcare, in nutrition, in economic well-being. This should outrage us all.” 

These are all the reasons UnidosUS has been working to grow the LII, she added. 

“The research is clear. A child’s experiences from the womb to age three shape brain development and have lifelong impacts,” she said, explaining that the LII’s partners conducted a survey with 1,300 parents and families with children under age five to learn about their experiences and their greatest areas of need and concern. And through that, came the council, whose members worked with her and other policy analysts to distill the information and create a cross-cutting policy agenda for this February 6 briefing on Capitol Hill.  

The agenda and corresponding briefing focused on eight recommendations related to education, health, economic security, and immigration, many of which were informed by the findings of a UnidosUS 2024 National Latino Family Report. Those recommendations are: 

  1. Improve access to high-quality, culturally responsive early childhood programs. 
  2. Increase salaries, diversify, and train the early childhood workforce on dual language development. 
  3. Promote family engagement and home visiting efforts that are respectful of home languages. 
  4. Expand health care access, including mental health care. 
  5. Address food insecurity among Latino families, supporting programs like SNAP and WIC. 
  6. Tackle gun violence as a public health crisis affecting children. 
  7. Boost economic security for Latina mothers and families by championing paid family leave and expanding child tax credit. 
  8. Support humane immigration policies since they affect every aspect of Latino children’s lives. 

“You have the power to create change, and now is the time to act,” said Villarroel. “Within the past 24 hours, 2,500 Latino babies were born in this country. We have three years to implement the policies that prevent these gaps from affecting their future. Latino children are depending on you. Our nation is depending on you.” 

What Neuroscience Can Tell Us About Early Childhood Development 

Given that the brains of infants and toddlers grow at lightning speed (about one million new neural connections per second), the LII also stays abreast of the latest scientific research on infant and toddler brain development, using webinars, special reports, and briefings like this one hear from the subject matter experts.  

For this briefing, that expert was Dr. Naja Ferjan Ramírez, a University of Washington professor and Advisory Council member, who presented on brain development and bilingualism. 

She started by showing an illustration of rapid infant brain development, explaining that babies start their lives with 25% of their adult brain volume, and reach a whopping 85% of that volume by the age of three. 

“There’s an incredible amount of growth that takes place during this critical period,” said Ferjan Ramírez.  “This is particularly impressive if you consider that no new neurons or brain cells are actually being born. It is the connections that are growing at an astonishing rate, at a rate that will never be the same again.”  

She went on to say how important language development, or better yet, multilingual development is to strengthen those connections. First, she explained that children begin picking up language in utero and differentiate between languages at birth. She also noted that contrary to the popular myth that children will be confused by more than one language, research shows greater brain activity in the frontal cortex for children who are receiving high-quality exposure to and interaction with more than one language.  

“Early interactions prepare children for a lifetime of success, and for infants learning two languages, those interactions have to happen in both languages,” Dr. Ferjan Ramírez said.  

Before launching the final panel discussion part of the program, Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors Executive Director Adrián Pedroza hailed the unique opportunity the LII offers to explore the intersection of science, education, culture, and language in a policymaking context.  

“How fascinating to see the science behind our lived experience and what we know from interacting with families, communities, [and] our own upbringing,” he said.  

Testimonials to Good Childcare Services 

In recognition of the hard work and wisdom that partnering organizations bring to the LII, UnidosUS asked two representatives of their Texas-based Affiliate organization to join Dr. Ferjan Ramírez on that panel. 

Panelist Melanie Monroe, an AVANCE Parent Leader, began working with AVANCEabout a decade ago just as she was giving birth to and raising two children in close succession (now aged 10 and 11). She said the program’s parental engagement and home visit program was key to helping her develop the awareness and the confidence she needed to rear well-rounded childrenand to transfer that skill to others.  

She was also grateful for the affordable care and for the way that the AVANCE staff taught her how to make toys and other learning resources out of things she had right there at home. AVANCE was once again instrumental in her life when she found herself raising a third toddler during the pandemic as a single mom.  

“They would give me diapers, referrals for food, and all these things that I was worrying about,” she said. “Once that stress was gone, I was able to focus and learn, and I received tools that I use to help my kids.” 

Dr. Ferjan Ramírez reiterated the importance of quality interactions through play, infant-directed speech, and activities that require a back-and-forth exchange between caregiver and baby. 

“Of course, what gets in the way is finding that time to have these high-quality interactions,” Dr. Ferjan Ramírez said, adding that she wants to see policies that give all parents more quality time with their babies and policies that support them in speaking to their babies in the language for which they are most comfortable. “If that’s Spanish, it’s Spanish. If it’s English, it’s English. If it’s both languages, then it’s both languages, but high-quality interactions.” 

Dr. Teresa Granillo, CEO of AVANCE, said that programs like Head Start should be shifting some of their historical focus from four and five-year-olds to Early Head Start, which covers prenatal to three-year-olds, even though it’s more expensive to do so.  

“If we know that Head Start, and especially Early Head Start works, why not start increasing the presence of that into other places,” Dr. Granillo said, suggesting that those places should include communities where parents are struggling to get back to work or to go back to school.  

Granillo also noted that part of the funding increase should include better pay for the educators and caregivers—very often women of color—who are doing this crucial work. 

“If we get it right on the front end, think about how many other programs we wouldn’t need to fund anymore because the children would already be on the right track, educationally, socio-emotionally– all of those different factors,” Granillo said, adding that in an ideal world, policymakers would come to early childhood education centers to observe these kinds of dynamics so often taken for granted when viewed without a scientific lens. 

“What I would urge—because I know a lot of you are staffers—urge the folks that you work for, the elected officials, to go on the ground, get in a classroom, spend one day or a couple of hours in an early childhood classroom, and watch that teacher. Watch every single move they make, every word that they share, every serve and return. It is all intentional, and it is hard work, and it’s exhausting,” Dr. Granillo said. 

You might also be interested in: