SPRINGDALE -- Children who are immigrants or have at least one immigrant parent are more likely to live in or near poverty in Arkansas than their counterparts in any other state, advocates said Tuesday, calling for policy changes to increase the group's access to education and work.
About 56,000 children of immigrant families in the state live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, which corresponds to an income of about $40,000 for a family of three, the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation reported. That's almost 70 percent of the state's children in that category, compared with the national rate of 53 percent.
Low incomes aren't unique to immigrant families in Arkansas, where incomes have long ranked near the country's lowest. The report found about half of Arkansas' children with native-born parents are near or in poverty, second only to Mississippi.
But immigrant families often make even less than native-born ones, at least at first, and poverty combined with language or other unique difficulties can hobble their children's success throughout life, said Laura Kellams, Northwest Arkansas director with Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.
"All of our future depends on their success," Kellams told a small crowd in the Springdale Public Schools administration building, where she delivered the Casey Foundation's report. "It's really an 'us' problem."
Kellams and other community leaders said the state can help by supporting prekindergarten and after-school programs for all children and by making higher education more affordable, among other policy recommendations.
"The world is opened up to them through that early experience," Springdale Public Schools Superintendent Jim Rollins said.
The foundation report wasn't all bad news -- children of immigrant families are more likely to live with two parents, for example, and are slightly more likely than their peers to be in school or working in young adulthood. They're half as likely to be proficient in reading as fourth-graders than their peers, but that low rate is higher than in several states, Kellams said.
"These are engaged kids. They want to be in school, they want to be working," she said. "We are doing something right in Arkansas."
Recent census estimates for 2016 found that the overall number of children in poverty continued to fall, as it has for several years. The number of immigrant-family children near the poverty level has held more or less been steady since 2013 in Arkansas as well, the foundation has found.
Yet the same children are less likely than their peers to be in preschool or to earn at least an associate's degree. About 23 percent of the state's foreign-born adults have earned at least an associate's degree by age 29, compared with 30 percent of U.S.-born adults.
Kellams pointed to Arkansas' overall low incomes and its relatively new immigrant community as possible reasons for the high number of immigrant families near the poverty level. In Northwest Arkansas, for instance, the Hispanic and Pacific Islander populations have surged mostly in the past two decades to fill factory jobs at companies such as Tyson Foods. Many families originally immigrated to California and the Southwest before moving to the South for work and lower costs of living.
Now more than 80,000 children in the state are part of immigrant families, according to the Casey Foundation. Several students and graduates with immigrant parents in recent months have said their parents often stressed the importance of education but couldn't offer much help with it.
Zessna Garcia-Rios, 28, attends graduate school at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. She worked her way one course at a time through her bachelor's degree and is paying for her master's degree by working in a graduate assistant job.
Frankc Berlanga-Medina, also a master's student, worked 30 to 40 hours each weekend at his godfather's restaurant and burned through his mother's savings to obtain his first degree, for which he had to pay international tuition.
Judith Yanez of Springdale said Tuesday that she thinks her parents never felt confident that they could help with her schooling, especially when she started applying for college.
"I had to navigate all of that myself because my parents didn't know, but they supported me. Their focus was making sure we had a roof over our head, we had food," Yanez said.
Yanez, a former teacher, and Berlanga-Medina this year started a nonprofit group called RootED Northwest Arkansas to help all parents understand and engage in their children's education system.
"We need allies to support these kids, and who better than the parents?" Yanez said.
Other programs throughout the community also aim to tackle immigrant poverty and education from several directions. Tyson Foods offers English and citizenship courses for workers at several plants. Springdale and other districts provide parent literacy, pre-K and after-school programs. Rollins said 16 of 31 schools feature the programs, which let parents learn alongside their children.
Arkansas as a whole plans to allow children whose families come from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean to get health care coverage through ARKids First, essentially Medicaid for children, starting next year.
Each successive generation of an immigrant family is more likely to get more education and go into better-paying jobs, according to the Pew Research Center.
Kellams urged the state to pay for its after-school grant program, which was set up by the Legislature in 2011 but has never been given state money. She and others called on the state to also boost pre-K programs and allow in-state tuition for young foreigners who were brought into the country as children and are now illegally here. Many of those children have received temporary work permits and Social Security cards through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, often referred to as DACA.
Berlanga-Medina, Garcia-Rios and thousands of other Arkansans are among this group.
President Donald Trump earlier this year announced that the DACA program would no longer take new applicants and that the work permits would begin expiring. Democrats and some Republicans have said they support continuing the program and making it permanent. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has insisted that increased enforcement of immigration laws and a sharp drop in legal immigration come with it.
"We really are in a short window to get something done," said Mireya Reith, a member of the state Board of Education and an advocate for DACA participants and for offering foreigners who don't have valid visas a path to citizenship. Reith was a child of immigrants from Mexico and said the community must push its members of Congress to extend DACA protections and put the Casey Foundation's data to use.
"When you hold back one group, you hold back all of us," she said.
Metro on 10/25/2017