Recent policy decisions and heated political rhetoric directed at undocumented immigrants are both affecting the mental and physical health of families with at least one undocumented member, according to a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation that was released yesterday. Many families are constantly fearful that one or both parents could be deported, according to the report, leaving children alone or leaving families without the primary breadwinner.
The authors of the report, “Immigrant Families in America Today: How Fear and Toxic Stress Are Affecting Daily Life, Well-Being, and Health,” held focus groups in eight cities. Five of those cities were in California: San Diego, Fresno, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Oakland. Researchers also interviewed 13 pediatricians around the country.
A key finding of the report is that immigrant families, even those in the United States legally, are “experiencing very high levels of fear and uncertainty,” said Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation at a briefing about the report in Washington, DC.
Other key findings from the focus groups and physician interviews:
- Racism and discrimination, including bullying of children, have significantly increased and extend to children of color regardless of their immigration status.
- Daily life has become more difficult for immigrant families regardless of immigration status because many are afraid to sign up for benefits they are legally entitled to, have stopped recreational activities for fear of being rounded up and deported, and often remain indoors and afraid, making life even more stressful for children and adults.
- According to pediatricians, children are reporting stress-related symptoms including headaches, stomach aches, depression and anxiety. They worry about the long term mental and physical health consequences for these children.
- Some parents have reported decreased use of health benefits including MediCal and CHIP and less frequent doctor visits, even when children have physical symptoms that should be checked out.
Samantha Artiga, a coauthor of the report who is also director of the Disparities Policy Project at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said many parents reported that even though they tried to shield their children from news about immigration actions, other children at school would tell them and even tease them that they could be deported. One example of a policy change that has stoked fear in immigrant families is the decision by the Administration in September to rescind DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program) which allowed some undocumented young adults to stay and work in the U.S. for renewable periods of time.
The report quoted parents from the focus groups but did not identify them, because parents fear that sharing personal information increases the chance they will be deported. “We feel that in any moment a new rule could be issued leading to expelling us and sending us back,” said an Arabic-speaking parent in Anaheim. “I think everybody is a lot more scared…the worst fear is that they are going to separate us,” said a Latino parent in Los Angeles. “She worries too much, more than what kids should worry about. I mean she’s just a little girl, [but] you can’t really tell her not to worry,” said a Latino parent in Fresno.
To encourage families not to cancel medical appointments, some practices have stationed bilingual staff in the front of clinics to welcome parents and children, often sporting buttons that read, “all welcome here.”
In focus groups both pediatricians and parents talked about how deportation can affect family income if the parent deported brought income into the household, including one pediatrician who noted an increase in homelessness among the families he cares and a growing worry that the current immigration climate can lead to poverty among families who had been self-sufficient.
The Foundation plans to disseminate the report widely, and Diane Rowland said she hopes that sharing the new report will highlight the challenges families face and help shape more informed local and federal immigration policies.