Report: Immigration Enforcement Takes Heavy Toll On Kids’ Physical And Mental Health

A new report reveals that immigration reform could save hundreds of thousands of children from suffering physical and mental health strains.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jun 06, 2013

There’s been lots of talk recently about what immigration reform could mean for families. But with all attention on the reform of citizenship and border enforcement laws, it’s easy for policy-makers to miss the day-to-day fallout of the country’s immigration policy. A new report released yesterday by the Oakland-based health advocacy group Human Impact Partners finds that the congressional failure to pass immigration reform, coupled with the Obama administration’s historic levels of deportation, has punishing effects on the mental and physical health of the nearly 5 million American kids whose undocumented parents are threatened with deportation. 

"If the current rate of deportation continues, 152,000 children this year will have a parent detained or deported and this actually creates a change in the health of these children including issues like detachment," said Lili Farhang, one of the report’s authors.

Human Impact Partners based its findings on original research and analysis of existing data and studies on the children of immigrants and of deportees. The report reads:

[T]hese children and their families live with anxiety about the future, fearful that arrest, detention or deportation will tear their families apart. Anxiety and fear are only part of the damaging impacts of their families’ precarious legal status. Children of the undocumented may also suffer from poverty, diminished access to food and health care, mental health and behavioral problems and limited educational opportunities–particularly when a parent is arrested and detained or deported."

The researchers reviewed over 500 responses to a survey of immigrant parents and their children. The sample included undocumented and documented adults so that the researchers could compare the potential impact of a legalization program.

The authors found that children of undocumented parents were less likely to see a doctor or mental health professional and that three-quarters of the undocumented mothers and fathers surveyed said that their children experienced symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, compared to forty percent of documented parents’ kids. Similarly, undocumented parents themselves reported feeling increased levels of stress, fearfulness, sadness, withdrawal and anger.  The health outcomes are a result of fears of deportation and the economic effects of undocumented status, which increases poverty and food insecurity.  

The increased levels of stress and fear and other health problems are unsurprising in the face of the deportation of 90,000 parents of U.S. citizen kids each year, a number that revealed in December though a Freedom of Information Act request.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., who has introduced legislation to protect children from long term separation from their detained and deported parents, said the findings "should shock our conscience" and demand immediate action by the Obama administration.

"While it’s critical that any comprehensive immigration reform proposal include protections for immigrant families, this study shows we can’t continue waiting for Congress to act," Roybal-Allard said in a statement. "I once again call on the Administration to end the unjust deportation of parents."

The authors recommend a broad path to citizenship and a rollback of federal programs that use local cops to enforce immigration laws. They call for the inclusion of immigrants on a path to citizenship in federal health programs. The current immigration reform bill in the Senate excludes immigrants who apply for legal status from federal healthcare programs and subsidies.

Disclosure:  I provided early research advice to the authors of the report.