Study: Being an immigrant is bad for children's health

Immigration Enforcement
Fears among both documented and undocumented families have risen as the Trump administration imposes harsher enforcement policies.

For children in this country, at this time, being an immigrant can harm their health.

Their fears — real and imagined — about the potential deportation of their parents are causing illness and perhaps permanent brain changes, according to a new study released Wednesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit leader in health-policy analysis. The study showed that both legal and undocumented immigrant families are being consumed by the stresses produced by the Trump administration’s harsher enforcement policies.

The study found:

  •  Immigrant families are experiencing alarming levels of uncertainty. Parents who are in the United States illegally fear being deported and separated from their children, while those who are here legally worry that their approved status could vanish in an instant.
  •  Daily life has become more difficult for immigrant families who, if undocumented, may spend long hours behind their own locked doors, leaving the house only to go to work.
  •  Parents and doctors report children are having trouble sleeping and eating, are withdrawing from friends and family, and are suffering headaches, vomiting, panic attacks and even symptoms of depression.

The report “highlights how policies can have effects far beyond, perhaps, the individuals that are targeted by those policies,” said Samantha Artiga, director of Kaiser’s Disparities Policy Project and co-author of the study. “We really hear how those feelings of fear and uncertainty have impacts on their health.”

Analysts for the California-based foundation spoke to 100 parents from 15 countries and across a range of ethnicities that included Mexican, Afghani, Brazilian, Syrian and Korean. They interviewed 13 pediatricians who serve immigrant populations in eight states, including Pennsylvania, and in the District of Columbia.

An estimated 23 million noncitizens live in the U.S. under a variety of statuses, the report said. Many came here seeking safety, already traumatized by war, gangs or drug violence, while others sought a better life for their families.

Those families include more than 12 million children, most of them American citizens by birth.

“The worst fears are that they’re going to separate us,” a Latino parent in Los Angeles said, “that they’re going to be separating families.”

Key research focused on the well-being of children, and the results weren’t encouraging. Some children expressed an overall loss of hope for the future. One pediatrician reported that “fear of Trump” had emerged as a chief complaint on her daily schedule.

“They come in with a physical complaint and then we get to the bottom of it, and the bottom of it is anxiety,” a California pediatrician told the researchers, who withheld the names of those who were interviewed.

All the doctors expressed serious concerns about the long-term health consequences for children.

In young people, prolonged, continuous stress can damage connections in the brain. The effect of that “toxic stress” can show itself in poor coping skills, risky behaviors and mental-health issues, and has been associated with higher adult rates of pulmonary disease, diabetes, asthma and cancer, the study said.

Generally, parents kept their children enrolled in government health insurance programs, but some put off medical treatment, fearing a doctor’s visit could reveal their immigration status.

The study makes no recommendations for policy changes.

Its findings “point to long-term consequences for children in immigrant families, including poorer health outcomes over the lifespan,” the study said.

That conclusion is supported by other research that associates toxic stress with harmful consequences, including shortened lives.

“Prolonged stress in young children can slow — or even stop — both brain development and physical growth,” according to Better Brains for Babies, a Georgia initiative supported by state and federal health agencies. “Prolonged exposure to cortisol released during the stress response can cause long-term damage to the developing brain and can negatively affect the immune system.”

Parents in the study said they try to shield their children from worry. But their sons and daughters hear about immigration issues at school, and they fear that their parents may be deported or that the family will have to leave the only country they know.

“We feel that in any moment,” an Arabic-speaking parent in California said, “a new rule could be issued leading to expelling us and sending us back.”