Recently arrived mothers seeking asylum are running into a perennial issue that’s plagued many families living in homeless shelters — the tricky balancing act of looking for work without accessible childcare.

Erika Fernandez arrived in New York City three months ago from Ecuador with her husband and two kids, who are 10 and 3 years old. She’s been staying at a Queens shelter with her family.

But without a feasible childcare option, she hasn't been able to work because she has to watch her youngest at the shelter all day.

“When you come to this country, all you want to do is work, not be a burden to the state,” Fernandez said in Spanish. “Right now, I’m a burden to the state.”

Migrant moms living in shelters told Gothamist that back in their home countries, they were used to either leaving their kids home alone (once they’re old enough) or having a family member or neighbor watch them. But in the city’s shelters, parents said they’re often left to figure out childcare on their own and are worried they could face serious consequences, such as threats of being kicked out of the shelter or having child protective services called if their children are left alone for any length of time – a culture shock for many as they navigate their new lives in New York.

“Things are very different from Venezuela,” said Yesenia Polanco, another recent migrant who is staying at the shelter with her kids, who are 7 and 11 years old. “There, I would work and leave my kids at home. Here, I can’t do that. But you’re not in your country. You have to adapt to the rules here.”

Shut out of many state and city-subsidized childcare programs that are limited to citizens, legal permanent residents and others with “qualified” immigration status, migrant parents living in shelters are learning of the strict rules that forbid shelter residents from socializing in the building or accessing each other’s rooms, much less taking care of each other's kids.

“You can’t leave them alone in the shelter. It’s a problem if you leave them alone, or if you leave them outside with someone,” Polanco said in Spanish, pointing to a playground across the streets where families gather. “They’re very strict here. You can’t be watching another kid who lives in the shelter. You can’t watch them in the park or anything. It’s very complicated.”

Fernandez said the shelter wouldn’t let her sister, the children’s aunt who also stays at the shelter, watch the kids.

“They tell me I’m the mother and I have to watch him until I can leave him at a daycare,” she said, adding that although she appreciated the precaution taken to protect children, it put her in a tough spot.

Liza Schwartzwald, senior manager of economic justice and family empowerment at the New York Immigration Coalition, said the problem is multipronged. Without means for childcare, many migrant parents are stuck in a vicious cycle where they’re likely to stay in shelters longer, she said.

“We end up in this horrible 'Catch-22' with these families who are in shelters, who don't have subsidized care, who don't have a way to find somebody to watch their child in a safe space, and then they're unable to get work and then they're stuck there,” Schwartzwald said. “They can't get out of the shelter system because they can't get work.”

Nara Milanich, a professor of history at Barnard College and director of the Center for Mexico and Central America, said the American standard for childcare differs from that of many recent arrivals, where there’s a reliance on community and family.

“We have all kinds of rules regarding child rights and child protections, different protocols, which in theory are of course really important — everybody wants to protect children,” Milaich said. “And yet inadvertently sometimes those protocols end up disrupting informal collective forms of care that people practice.”

Milanich, who hosted a discussion at Columbia University late last month on the “newest New Yorkers,” recently became involved in community organizing efforts to help migrants in her Upper West Side neighborhood, where she said she saw firsthand the struggles they faced when it came to childcare.

“If you're used to leaving your child with your comadre, right, your neighbor, your friend, and that's typically the way you take care of childcare needs, you trade off care with your neighbor… suddenly that practice is not just frowned upon, but is prohibited in the context of the shelter,” she said.

But outsourcing childcare is a daunting task for recently arrived families.

Not only does the city — and state — not have enough childcare in general, but existing state and federally funded social programs present their own challenges for people who are undocumented or awaiting a change in their immigration status, Schwartzwald said. And just getting into an immigration courthouse requires people to stand outside for hours, only to join a backlog of more than 120,000 pending cases in New York City.

Stephen Will, a spokesperson for the Department of Social Services that oversees the city’s shelter system, said in a statement that the agency is coordinating with several others to “to ensure that asylum-seeking families and their children in shelter have access to critical academic, social-emotional, and language-based supports to succeed in schools.”

“This includes supporting the family in accessing DSS, [Department of Education] and other agency facilitated resources including afterschool programs and eligible childcare to support the entire family during the school year,” he added.

After an effort to expand childcare for undocumented children at the state level failed earlier this year, the city set aside $10 million in its own budget for child care vouchers specifically for undocumented children, which is in the works.

“Since receiving this new funding, ACS has been developing a new program, and identifying trusted community-based organizations to contract with to administer the program citywide,” said a spokesperson for the Administration for Children's Services, the agency slated to receive the money. “We anticipate the program will be launched very soon.”

Many are still left to consider private daycare providers, which can be costly for new arrivals. Fernandez said the daycare options she had come across cost at least $250 each week.

When daycares are able accept undocumented children, or when the families become documented, parents have trouble navigating a complex system in a language they might not understand in order to access them, according to Schwartzwald.

“It’s very confusing. A huge amount of our families, and that goes for the shelter families as well, don't have any kind of internet connection or a computer to access,” Schwartzwald said. “They may or may not have a phone, so they may be struggling to kind of fill out these forms on their cell phone on the tiny screen, maybe in a language they don't know, and they're stuck.”

For Polanco, her reality in New York is a departure from what she thought she’d be encountering in the U.S.

“It’s gotten very difficult. Things aren’t the way I was told they would be,” she said. “I have friends here who told me, ‘You’ll find work.’ But I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place. I want to work and I can’t.”