Despite promises to protect immigrants living in the U.S. for decades, little action has been taken by Congress.
Photo: Alex Wong (Getty Images)

Much of the discussion around U.S. immigration policy has focused on how it might affect undocumented residents, but new research finds that even Latino U.S. citizens are experiencing high levels of anxiety and distress over the current immigration debate. The study, published today in the Journal of Adolescent Health, might be one of the first to quantify just how traumatizing recent events have been for some Latino parents, regardless of whether they’re undocumented.

During the fall of 2017, researchers at George Washington University in D.C. surveyed more than 200 hundred Latino parents living in an largely Latino suburban community nearby. Only a third of the parents were undocumented, while the rest were either permanent residents, temporarily protected through avenues such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, or U.S. citizens. They all had teens living in their households, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, while the remaining were either DACA recipients or eligible to be protected. The slim majority of those interviewed were from El Salvador, while two-thirds had lived in the U.S. for more than 15 years.

Bilingual interviewers asked the parents about how affected they were by news stories and actions taken by the Trump administration that involved immigration and whether they changed their behavior in response; and how psychologically distressed they felt overall. A consistent pattern emerged.

“We weren’t surprised that there were harmful impacts of the immigration climate on undocumented parents, but we were very struck by the negative impacts on Latino parents living in the U.S. legally,” lead author Kathleen Roche, a public health researcher at GWU, told Gizmodo. “Across all 200 parents in the study, two-thirds reported that they very often or always worried about separation of family members due to immigrant action. And almost half frequently warned their children to stay away from authorities; talked to their children about changing behaviors, such as where they hang out after school; frequently avoided getting help from the police or getting medical care and food assistance; and worried about their child being able to finish high school and eventually get a job.”

More than a fourth of parents overall also dealt with high levels of distress, but the risk of feeling distressed was three times greater for parents who reported frequently worrying about treatment of Latinos in the U.S.

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Aside from indicating that Trump’s immigration rhetoric is freaking out Latino parents who seemingly wouldn’t be directly affected, it’s certain to have downstream effects for their children and everyone else too, Roche says.

“We know from prior research that teenagers whose parents suffer from mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are at much greater risk of themselves not doing well in school, engaging in substance use, and having their own mental health problems,” she said. “And the risks these youths are facing are not only going to derail their own future pathways, but they will also come at a very high cost to society.”

There were subtle differences between the groups, Roche noted. U.S. citizens and permanent residents were less likely to feel spooked by immigration rhetoric, while temporarily protected parents felt just as vulnerable as undocumented parents. But across all groups, about a sixth reported being harassed by authorities or discriminated against by others.

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The survey can’t tell us for sure whether the degree of distress Latino parents are feeling now is relatively higher than it was during the Obama administration, which oversaw a record-breaking number of deportations. It’s almost certain, then, that parents’ distress over U.S. immigration policy has long preceded President Trump.

With the ramp-up of xenophobic sentiment since Trump took office and aggressive immigration actions taken against a greater variety of immigrants by his administration, though, Roche says it’s likely that distress has indeed gotten higher. She also cites as-yet unpublished data from focus group interviews her team has conducted with 54 Latino parents, including U.S. parents.

“High levels of stress have always existed among undocumented Latino immigrants, and that’s been shown in the literature, but the focus group data do suggest that parents are experiencing a distinct change since the new president took office,” she said.

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While others have appealed for undocumented and temporarily protected immigrants to be given a path to citizenship or permanent residency on moral grounds, she and her team argue that it could easily be seen as a matter of public health. It’d be a policy shift that would not only greatly improve the lives of parents, but their children as well, particularly teenagers, who are more keenly aware of and affected by the world around them.

“There’s a complexity to this issue that is not easily solved by deporting individuals out of the U.S. or by ending one’s temporary protected status, and that complexity is that the lives of children and families are inextricably linked with our immigration policies,” she said. “And we can’t easily separate the two, such that actions we have for one group have a spillover effect into much larger numbers of people, including U.S. citizens.”

Given that Congress has seemingly given up on even trying to salvage the DACA program that was dismantled by President Trump, though, it’s unlikely any positive change will arrive in the near future.

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[Journal of Adolescent Health]