Report: Trump’s immigration policies harm mental health of Latinx, regardless of residency status

“The fear and uncertainty is spreading far beyond those who are officially targeted.”

Honduran immigrant Michael Hernandez, 19, listens to an immigration attorney speak at a DACA and TPS workshop on January 27, 2018 in Stamford, Connecticut. (CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)
Honduran immigrant Michael Hernandez, 19, listens to an immigration attorney speak at a DACA and TPS workshop on January 27, 2018 in Stamford, Connecticut. (CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)

The Trump administration has consistently argued its policies target criminal, undocumented immigrants but it is becoming increasingly obvious this is untrue — the most recent examples are the president’s numerous attacks on humanitarian immigration. These regressive policies aren’t without consequence, and jeopardize the health and well-being of immigrants and U.S. citizens.

A new report published Thursday in the Journal of Adolescent Health shows the president’s immigration policies in 2017 triggered serious psychological distress for many within the Latinx community, regardless of whether they were living in the United States with documentation or not. The study is one of the first looks into how last year’s immigration policies are affecting communities. Researchers met with Latinx parents for insight into the second-fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the country.

Researchers at Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University began their work in early November 2017, two months after the Trump administration announced it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and give Congress six months to come up with a permanent solution (there still is none). They concluded their work later that month after Trump announced the end of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program for immigrants from Nicaragua and extended the deadline for Honduras for only six months. Researchers surveyed 213 parents mostly from Central America who live in a mid-Atlantic city suburb. More than two-thirds were living in the United States with documentation — be it as a citizen, permanent resident, or TPS beneficiary.

Latinx were asked a series of questions on how official actions and news stories thereafter affected them or their family members, and an overwhelming majority said they often or always worried about family separation. These anxieties weren’t without consequences: 40 percent said they frequently avoided getting medical care, help from the police, or public assistance like food stamps.

Immigrant communities have spoken publicly about these anxieties through the media and other research has also revealed how Trump’s policies have negatively impact them. But this particular study pokes holes in the idea of the “hierarchy” of residency status, and that if immigrants follow the law, they should have nothing to worry about.

“The fear and uncertainty is spreading far beyond those who are officially targeted,” lead author Dr. Kathleen Roche, an associate professor of prevention and community health at Milken Institute, told ThinkProgress.

TPS holders researchers surveyed reported more instances of high psychological distress compared to the undocumented and permanent resident parents. Roche suspects it’s because threats to TPS are very new, whereas “undocumented immigrants are accustomed to this fear and uncertainty.”

And this community’s fears are merited. Almost all TPS holders researchers spoke with lived in the United States for more than 15 years, and 60 percent said a family member had been detained or deported since Trump took office in 2017. For comparison, less than a quarter of undocumented, permanent resident, and U.S. citizen parents reported a family member’s recent deportation or detention. This finding shows a pronounced vulnerability for this immigrant community, many of whom came to the United States to flee violence.

“In this way, our findings do not support the idea of ‘hierarchy’ of residency status but rather point to the uniquely protective value of having US citizenship,” the report says.

Congress hasn’t been able to agree on immigration legislation, and Trump’s March 5 deadline for a solution on the DACA program is coming up. This lack of a permanent fix has serious consequences for U.S. citizens as well — particularly children of immigrants. The majority of parents surveyed had U.S. citizen-children, but 30 percent were DACA or DACA-eligible. Media attention has focused on DACA in recent months, but the effects of Trump’s policies are more widespread. Studies have shown parents who are anxious or depressed, like those surveyed this study, pass that stress onto children. These adolescents are at an elevated risk of doing poorly in school or engaging in substance use, said Roche.

“The risk on focusing on DACA so much is we’re overlooking the pernicious impacts happening on U.S. citizen, Latino children,” said Roche. “All those outcomes on young people will come at a high cost to the health and criminal systems.” 

The study is not without limitations, as it relies on self-reported data. A larger sample size could help elucidate findings for TPS parents, for example, said the study’s authors.