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Human Rights

Assessing the Health Impacts of Immigration Policy

How detention and deportation policies harm the health and well-being of children and families.

“Two years ago, Immigration came to look for someone in our house—someone who did not live there. [Afterward] my youngest son's performance in school suffered. … [He became] fearful of everything. When somebody knocked on the door he would react in a very angry, nervous manner. He became constantly nervous, angry, he couldn't fall asleep, irritated … "—Isabella, an undocumented immigrant and mother of three

As debate on immigration reform builds, the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States are waiting to see if they are allowed to stay, work, and become citizens. But they are not the only ones whose lives will be profoundly affected by changes to our immigration laws. Enforcement policies have affected an estimated 660,000 or more US-citizen children who have had one or more parents deported. Immigration reform provides an opportunity for these mixed-status families to come out of the shadows and live as legal residents of the US.

Nationwide, an estimated 4.5 million children who are US citizens by birth live in families where one or more of their parents are undocumented. These children will grow up to be our neighbors and co-workers. Their health and well-being today will translate into their health and well-being as adults, which will in turn affect our entire society.

These children and their families live with anxiety about the future—fearful that arrest, detention, or deportation will tear their families apart. But 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. Research shows that these factors are fundamental determinants of child health today, as well as their adolescent and adult health in the future.

Human Impact Partners’ newly released report, “Family Unity, Family Health: How Family-Focused Immigration Reform Will Mean Better Health for Children and Families,” is the first-ever study to look at the health consequences of our current harsh immigration policies. The study used a mixed-methods research approach, including an analysis of existing literature and government statistics, predictive quantitative analysis, data from a national convenience survey, and two focus groups conducted in Los Angeles.

The findings are sobering:

  • If deportations remain at 2012 levels, an estimated 43,000 US-citizen children will experience a decline in their health due to a change in household income associated with the absence of a primary earner.
  • Approximately 100,000 will show signs of withdrawal after a parent’s arrest. They will finish fewer years of school and face challenges to focusing on their studies.
  • Almost 17,000 more undocumented parents of children who are citizens will find themselves in poor health because of the loss of income from a deported partner.
  • Median household income for undocumented immigrant households overall will drop to an estimated $15,400, putting them below the poverty line.
  • With the absence of their primary household earner, more than 125,000 children will live in a food-insufficient household.

Focus group discussions with members of immigrant families and a survey of individuals living in mixed-status families showed that parents were deeply aware of how their legal status, and the threat of detention or deportation, affected their children.

  • Almost 40 percent of children of undocumented parents did not see a doctor in the previous year compared to almost 30 percent of the children of documented parents. US-born children of undocumented parents are twice as likely to lack health insurance than children born to citizens.
  • Nearly 30 percent of undocumented parents reported that their children were afraid either all or most of the time—a much higher rate than among children of documented parents. Nearly 50 percent reported that their child had been anxious, and almost 75 percent of undocumented parents reported that a child had shown symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from the threat of detention and deportation.

The cost of current policies also carries a staggering price tag: Last year, the US spent more than $1.2 billion to deport parents of US-citizen children. This is money that could instead be spent on improving the health and well-being of families and children.

Finally, the impact of deportation ripples outward, creating a climate of fear and paralysis in the entire community—children whose classmates are separated from their parents; businesses who lose valued workers; families who become scared to seek health care, to use public services, or even to drive. Entire communities suffer from immigration policies that ignore the needs of these children.

Our society professes to prize family values, but since 1998, US immigration enforcement policies have affected an estimated 660,000 or more children whose parents have been deported. Any comprehensive immigration reform worthy of our country's highest ideals must focus on preserving family unity.

True reform must create a path to citizenship that will decrease the risk of detention and deportation for millions of individuals and their families. It must address the root causes of poor health status among families with undocumented members—the fear, stress, and potential trauma experienced by families whose unity may be threatened due to their legal status. It must not create a host of new, unintended consequences for the health of these already vulnerable people.

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