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DACA linked to dramatic improvements in children’s mental health

REUTERS/Kyle Grillot
Rocio, a DACA program recipient, shouts with supporters during a rally outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles on Friday.

The mental health of U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants dramatically improves when they are protected from the stress of worrying that their parents may be deported, a study published online last Thursday in the journal Science reports.

The study’s findings underscore the widespread and long-term impact that immigration policies have on health — not just for individual immigrants, but also for their families and for the broader American society.  

As background information in the study points out, mental health disorders that originate in childhood are associated with long-term health issues, including depression, heart disease, obesity and substance abuse, as well as with lower levels of education and a greater dependence on welfare and social programs.

In addition, mental illness is the most costly illness for children in the United States, accounting for $13.8 billion in health care expenditures in 2011 alone.

The study’s findings are also particularly pertinent — and poignant — today, when President Trump is expected to announce his decision about whether to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program that protects unauthorized immigrants born on or after June 16, 1981, from deportation.  

Study details

About 4 million U.S. children  — including at least 200,000 children of DACA parents — have a mother or father (or both) who is an unauthorized immigrant. Research has shown that fear of their parents’ deportation is a significant source of stress for these children.

Assessing the intergenerational effects of immigration status on stress — and health — is challenging, however. One major problem is separating that specific stress from others caused by the economic and cultural barriers commonly experienced by immigrant families. 

Unauthorized immigrants are also reluctant to identify themselves, and thus are excluded from many surveys and other databases.

To overcome these problems, the authors of the current study used research from the Emergency Medicaid program in Oregon, which offers pregnancy services to immigrant women who do not qualify for traditional Medicaid. The children born to the women in this program qualify for Medicaid, however, because they are U.S. citizens. The researchers could then use that data to track the children’s medical history.

The other key element of this study involved the DACA age cutoff: June 16, 1981. The researchers selected 5,653 mothers born just before and after that date for their study. These two groups of women were essentially identical — except for whether or not they qualified for DACA’s protections.

Key findings

A total of 8,610 children were born to the women in the study between 2003 and 2015. The researchers studied those children’s medical histories, looking for diagnoses of two categories of mental disorders. One category — anxiety disorders — is thought to be influenced by genetics as well as by external causes. The other category — adjustment disorders — is believed triggered by external stressors, such as the fear of losing a parent.  The average age at which these diagnoses were first made was 6.7 years. 

When a comparison was made between the two groups of children, the findings were stark. Before DACA, the two groups were diagnosed with stress-related disorders at about the same rate: 7.8 percent. That changed dramatically, however, after DACA — but only for the group of children whose mothers were eligible for the program. The rate at which they were diagnosed with adjustment or anxiety disorders dropped by more than half — to 3.3 percent.  

The greatest drop was in adjustment disorders — a finding that suggests that the improvement in the mental health of the children of the DACA parents was related to a change in their stress levels rather than to some internal factors.

Immigration Policy Lab

“Our results imply that expanding deferred action, or providing more permanent protection, to the millions of unauthorized immigrant parents who do not meet the current DACA eligibility criteria could equally promote the well-being of their children,” said Duncan Lawrenc, one of the study’s authors and the executive director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab, in a released statement.

“This would have important implications for this next generation of American citizens,” he added.

FMI: You can read the study in full on Science’s website.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 09/05/2017 - 10:53 am.

    There are 100 million people all

    over the world that can say the same thing “if I become an American citizen, my life would be better”. DACA is not the law of the land, it was a temporary fix by executive order under Obama. We have actual laws on the books that limit the amount and who can enter America. If the left wants “open borders ” elect folks into all 3 branches and pass it as law not executive fiat.

  2. Submitted by Paul John Martin on 09/05/2017 - 11:44 am.

    Enough with the partisan chest-thumping, Joe

    Read the article, please. This is about real US citizens, albeit born to illegal immigrants. Their well-being will mean greater well-being for our whole society as they grow up.

  3. Submitted by joe smith on 09/05/2017 - 01:24 pm.

    No this about stopping the incentive to bring

    over the border young children to obtain some form of citizenship for the family. Natural born citizens are under law American citizens, we are talking children not being born here but brought here under the age 16. No political chest pounding just plain rule of law. As we all learned in junior high, congress makes the laws, executive branch enforces. Obama penned DACA into existence and Trump penned it out. As I said, make laws that cover this in the congress and then they can be followed by all.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/06/2017 - 12:59 am.

      What’s the point?

      Did you even try to understand what DACA actually is before commenting? Trump – as with most issues – doesn’t understand it and Sessions told one bald-faced lie after another talking about it, but the information is out there. Do facts even matter at all?

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 09/06/2017 - 10:12 am.

    What facts?

    DACA was an executive order by Obama, it was overturned by executive order by Trump. Children brought here by their parents under the age of 16 were granted amnesty from deportation even though they were not American citizens. There is not any law that allows that to happen. Those are the “facts”. The article was saying the children affected by DACA ruling and those born here by illegal alien parents could have mental health issues over the stress. That is the reason for having a law, not executive fiat, so they will know what their status is.

    So the point is, make a law to make it clear what their status and future is. Just because you don’t like the ruling doesn’t mean you can make laws from the executive branch, that is congresses job. That was the point.

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