Officials tracking down illegal migrants at Head Start

Immigration enforcement officials are now targeting migrant and seasonal Head Start centers in some states as part of efforts to track down illegal immigrants, the executive director of the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association says.

Yvette Sanchez, president of the Washington, D.C.-based association, was in Milwaukee this weekend for a meeting of the national board of directors at United Migrant Opportunity Services Inc.

She said immigration surveillance is emerging as one of the top three issues for the group, comprising migrant and seasonal Head Start directors, staff, parents and friends. Financial appropriations and the need for more bilingual materials are the others, she said.

"Several kids and babies died in the fields because parents were fearful of sending them to Head Start,"' she said in an interview.

"Since early 2007 many of our programs started to notice that Border Patrol of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) vehicles were parked outside their centers and some were following buses picking up children," she said.

Jason Ciliberti, supervisory Border Patrol agent in Washington, D.C., said it's not the agency's policy to stake out Head Start centers.

"It could have happened if we believe there was an immigration violation afoot, but it's not our policy or practice, I believe."'

Gail Montenegro, a spokeswoman with ICE in Chicago, said, "All U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations are targeted based on leads received and subsequent investigations. Generally, our operations avoid actions at school settings. ... However, we will take into custody during these targeted operations anyone encountered who may be in the country illegally."

In testimony before the congressional subcommittee on work force protections in May, ICE officials were provided with a list of dates and places regarding ICE activities near migrant and seasonal Head Start programs in Florida, Tennessee, Georgia and New Mexico, according to a letter sent to ICE officials in Washington by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

"We ask that ICE enforcement and intimidation tactics near migrant and seasonal Head Start centers cease immediately," U.S. congressmen Joe Baca, Luis V. Gutierrez and Ruben Hinojosa wrote.

"Parents were fearful of going to the centers or letting their kids get on the bus, and enrollment went down in some parts," Sanchez said.

Some centers have taken signs off the buildings and buses, she said.

In Tennessee, one family took their baby with them to the fields and left the baby in the truck where the baby died, she said.

The criteria for participating in migrant and seasonal Head Start programs is low family income and agricultural employment, she said. "Since the Head Start program was started in 1965, we have never asked families if they are citizens, and it's never been a requirement," she said.

Migrant and seasonal Head Start programs operate in 39 states and serve more than 30,000 migrants and 3,000 children of seasonal farm workers, she said.

They serve children from 6 months to school age and also provide a variety of health, nutritional and transportation services.

United Migrant Opportunity Services operates eight migrant and seasonal Head Start programs in Wisconsin that serve 530 children.

Cris Cuevas, director of the United Migrant program, said centers here have not been staked out by immigration officials.