The rise in anti-immigration rhetoric and policies since President Trump was elected is having a harmful effect on the mental and physical health of many Latinx youth, including those who are U.S. citizens, according to a study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.
For the study, researchers analyzed health data collected from 397 U.S.-born teenagers who were part of a larger, long-term study of Mexican farmworker families in the Salinas Valley region of California. The data came from health assessments conducted before and after the 2016 presidential election, when the teens were 14 years old and 16 years old. The assessments measured symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as the young people’s blood pressure and overall health. At the second assessment, the teens were also asked questions about how well they were sleeping and how worried they were about the impact of immigration policies on their families.
All of the young people in the study had at least one parent who was born in Mexico. Although the documentation of the parents was unknown, many had mothers who had been in the United States for fewer than five years before the child was born — a situation that raised the likelihood that the mother was undocumented.
As background information in the study points out, 25 percent of children in the U.S. live in immigrant families, primarily ones that originated in Latin American countries. Most children living in immigrant families are themselves U.S.-born and thus U.S. citizens, but 7.3 percent of school-aged children in the United States have at least one undocumented immigrant parent. In California, the proportion is even higher: 10.2 percent.
At their 16-year-old health assessments — which took place within 12 months after President Trump’s election — between 41 and 45 percent of the young people in the study said they worried at least sometimes about the impact of U.S. immigration policy on their families. They were particularly fearful of family members being deported and of their families being separated.
One in five (21 percent) of the adolescents at that second assessment reported clinically significant levels of anxiety and one in six (15 percent) reported clinically significant levels of depression. A similar proportion (16 percent) reported that the quality of their sleep was “fairly bad” or “very bad,” and about 11 percent said that problems falling or staying asleep at night had made it difficult for them to function during the day at least once a week.
Few of the teens had high blood pressure, but 16 percent were pre-hypertensive, which meant their blood pressure was elevated to a level that put them at increased risk of developing high blood pressure and other health problems in adulthood.
When the researchers compared the young people’s state of health at age 16 with what it had been at age 14 — before President Trump’s election — they found that symptoms of anxiety had increased significantly among the teens who expressed worry about immigration policies. Those teens were also having much more difficulty sleeping, and their blood pressure levels tended to be higher.
“We’re seeing an increase in anxiety that is related to kids’ concern about the personal consequences of U.S. immigration policy, and these are U.S.-born citizens,” says Brenda Eskenazi, the study’s lead author and director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at the University of California, Berkeley, in a released statement.
“Further, these are kids in California, a sanctuary state with more protective policies for immigrant families, compared to many other states,” she adds. “So, this study is probably reflecting the best-case scenario of how children of immigrants in other states are being affected.”
Several other studies have reported “adverse associations between a punitive immigration policy and children’s anxiety and depression symptoms,” Eskenazi and her colleagues write in their paper. In 2008, for example, researchers reported that two-thirds of children separated from their parents after raids by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) experienced detrimental changes in their sleep pattern after the raids.
“Sleep quality is key to academic achievement and to overall health and well-being,” the authors of the current study point out.
These adverse effects can have long-term consequences, says Nancy Gonzales, a co-author of the current study and dean of natural sciences at Arizona State University.
“High levels of anxiety are not necessarily fleeting,” she says in a released statement. “They can impact other aspects of children’s well-being including their ability to stay focused in school, and if they are living with prolonged anxiety, that also has long-term effects on their physical health and susceptibility in problems like alcohol and substance abuse.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. In 2017, in response to a string of punitive immigration-focused executive orders issued by President Trump, it released a statement on protecting immigrant children.
“Far too many children in this country already live in constant fear that their parents will be taken into custody or deported, and the message these children received today from the highest levels of our federal government exacerbates that fear and anxiety,” the organization said at that time. “No child should ever live in fear. When children are scared, it can impact their health and development. Indeed, fear and stress, particularly prolonged exposure to serious stress — known as toxic stress — can harm the developing brain and negatively impact short- and long-term health.”
Last week, President Trump announced that ICE was going to launch massive raids targeting immigrants in 10 major cities. He then later announced he was delaying the raids for two weeks to give Congress time “to work out a solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border.”
FMI: You can read the study in full on JAMA Pediatrics’ website.