In 2018, immigration enforcement resulted in the tear-gassing of asylum-seekers (including children) at the U.S. border, the traumatic separation of children from their parents in immigrant detention centers and a dramatic increase in immigration raids.
Facing critics who have decried these tactics as cruel and immoral, President Donald Trump continues to trumpet his administration’s immigration policies and has doubled down on calls for a border wall with inflammatory rhetoric that stokes fear and distrust.
That kind of language, public health experts warn, can be damaging in its own right — especially among Latinos, regardless of their immigration status.
“We know that deportations and family separations at the border are incredibly disruptive and traumatic to youth and their families. The detrimental impacts of family separations on child development and family systems are serious and long-lasting,” said Dr. Laura Wray-Lake, a UCLA associate professor who has studied how Latinx teens react to immigration policies under Trump. “What we’re also coming to understand is that even for youth and families who are not directly threatened by these deportation or family separation policies, the policy climate is creating a more hostile and unsafe environment.”
The administration’s enforcement tactics are fomenting fear — and that fear has consequences for health and well-being.
The ongoing threat of deportation is a form of psychological violence against the whole community.
One out of every four children in the U.S. is Latino, according to Dr. R. Gabriela Barajas-Gonzalez, an assistant professor in the department of population health at New York University’s School of Medicine, and “the vast majority of these children are U.S.-born citizens.” Yet even kids who are documented and legally protected from deportation can feel the emotional burden of an anti-immigrant climate.
“Latinx youth are following immigration politics and they can identify the injustices in what language is being used to describe immigrants and how policies are being applied to immigrants,” said Wray-Lake.
“Current discourse about immigrants and immigration tends to be dehumanizing,” said Barajas-Gonzalez. “Dehumanization is never healthy.”
Current discourse about immigrants and immigration tends to be dehumanizing. Dehumanization is never healthy.
Dr. R. Gabriela Barajas-Gonzalez
In a comprehensive analysis of existing research, published in September, Barajas-Gonzalez and other researchers looked at how anti-immigrant rhetoric, dehumanizing language and aggressive immigration enforcement practices were harming Latino children. They found that those who belonged to mixed-status families, which have at least one citizen or legal immigrant child and at least one undocumented parent, dealt with persistent stress and emotional discomfort.
“Mixed-status families may change their daily activities in attempts to protect themselves, consequently becoming more socially isolated,” said Barajas-Gonzalez, who led the report. “For some children, the stigma associated with being from an immigrant family, experiences with discrimination and increased consciousness of legal status is marked by fear, hyperawareness and hypervigilance.”
Children with these symptoms ― which can also be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety ― tend to be constantly on guard and tense, Barajas-Gonzalez added. “This state of arousal can be exhausting and impede children’s ability to focus in school,” she said.
Dr. Kathleen Roche, an associate professor of prevention and community health at George Washington University, agrees. “Citizen children of immigrant parents face risks to their mental health and school success when their parents suffer from elevated psychological distress,” she added.
Fear is preventing Latino families from getting medical care.
Roche was the lead author on a March report by GWU’s Milken Institute School of Public Health that looked at how immigration news and changes in enforcement tactics impacted Latino parents and their teenage children in the U.S.
“Fear and psychological harm triggered by recent immigration events appear to spill over into the lives of legally residing U.S. Latinos,” she said. As a result, people weren’t seeking help to take care of their own health, safety and well-being.
Researchers surveyed 213 Latino ― mostly Central American ― parents of teens in a suburb of a large mid-Atlantic city (the location was not named to protect the identities of the study participants). While some of those parents were undocumented, more than two-thirds were living in the U.S. legally as citizens, permanent residents or under temporary protected status.
Sixty-six percent of participants reported being worried “very often or always” about family members getting separated and nearly 40 percent said they “frequently avoided getting medical care, help from police, or support from social services.”
Fear and psychological harm triggered by recent immigration events appear to spill over into the lives of legally residing U.S. Latinos.
Dr. Kathleen Roche
Of the parents surveyed, only those who were U.S. citizens seemed “protected from the harmful consequences of immigration policy changes,” Roche said.
A University of California survey of health care providers, published in July, supports these findings. In that report, 42 percent of providers said children in immigrant families were increasingly missing scheduled medical appointments and 38 percent said immigrant families were increasingly not scheduling routine prevention or primary care appointments for their kids.
Even unborn babies are being affected.
Political rhetoric and policies that target specific immigrant groups could also be contributing to an increase in preterm births (babies born before 37 weeks of gestation) among Latinas, according to a study released by Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health in October.
Using population information from New York City, researchers found that preterm births among Latinas rose from 7.7 percent before Trump became a presidential nominee to 8.2 percent after his inauguration. Preterm births among Latinas born in Mexico and Central America rose even more during that same period, increasing from 7.3 percent to 8.4 percent.
“What’s important here is that this is affecting not only the mothers but the next generation, because when you’re born premature, it increases the risk of infant death, it increases the risk of infant illness and it increases the risk of different kinds of diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, when you get older,” Dr. Nancy Krieger, a professor of social epidemiology and the lead author on the study, previously told HuffPost.
Another study, published in 2017, examined birth weights in Iowa before and after a 2008 immigration raid in Postville ― one of the largest single-site federal immigration raids in U.S. history. Researchers found that after the raid, babies born to Latina mothers, regardless of immigration status, were at a higher risk of low birth weight compared to the same period a year earlier. Babies born to white mothers did not suffer the same effect.
Language matters. Policy matters more.
Fear, force and toxic rhetoric are having measurable negative impacts on Latinos living in the U.S. — and anti-immigrant hostility doesn’t seem likely to decrease any time soon.
Barajas-Gonzalez and Roche argue that to improve immigrant families’ health and well-being, it is crucial to address the harsh policies that are the root of the problem. Their studies urged cutting down the current backlog of more than 700,000 applications for citizenship and passing legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including parents of U.S.-born children.