More than 72,000 children in California could suffer long-lasting health consequences if a federal program that shields their parents from deportation is repealed, experts warn.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program, enacted by President Barack Obama in 2012, currently allows nearly 700,000 young people brought to the United States as children to remain in the country and work. On average, DACA recipients arrived in the U.S. between 1997 and 2002, when they were around 8 years old. Now, many are parents with their own young children.
Trump administration plans to repeal DACA would disrupt the lives not only of people enrolled in the program, but those of their children. As a result, thousands of kids who are U.S. citizens would be subjected to the trauma of potentially losing a parent and having their families destabilized by deportation, numerous child health organizations argued in a brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court. The court, which heard arguments on Nov. 12, is now weighing whether the White House can proceed with the repeal. A decision is expected in the spring.
The Trump administration argues that the program is unlawful and was designed as a temporary stopgap measure, not an ongoing policy.
Across the country, an estimated 250,000 U.S.-born children have at least one parent in the DACA program. California is home to more of these children than any other state, according to figures compiled by the Center for American Progress.
Alejandro Campos Robledo of Whittier is one DACA recipient who would be affected if the program is rescinded. A university student, Campos lives in constant fear of what would happen not only to him, but to his 11-year-old daughter, Giselle, if the Supreme Court allows the repeal to proceed. Robledo came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 8 and barely remembers his country of birth. Meanwhile, Giselle was born in the United States and is a citizen.
Robledo said his mental health is already suffering as a result of the repeal threat. He started having panic attacks following the initial repeal announcement in 2017 as he contemplated the possibility of being deported and having to leave his daughter behind. He wants to protect Giselle from experiencing the same kind of stress, so he doesn’t talk to her about the situation, he said.
“I try not to keep her in the loop of everything that’s going on because I don’t want her to have the extra worry,” he said. “I want her to focus on school. She’s only 11. I don’t want her to think, ‘My dad could be deported. My dad could be arrested.’”
Rescinding DACA would have long-term health consequences for the families involved, said Dr. Raul Gutierrez, a San Francisco-based pediatrician and co-chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Immigrant Child and Family Health, which contributed to the court brief. “We know that rescinding DACA would further exacerbate fear and anxiety that immigrant families face,” he said.
“This type of long-term stress, whether real or perceived, can disrupt a child’s brain architecture, affect her short- and long-term health, and contribute to chronic conditions like depression, post traumatic stress disorder and heart disease,” Gutierrez added.
The immigration status of a parent can dramatically impact children’s physical and mental health, studies show. Data gathered prior to the initial DACA repeal announcement in 2017, for example, found that children with moms eligible for the program had better mental health than those with immigrant moms not eligible for the program.
On the flip side, a study in JAMA Pediatrics of almost 400 U.S.-born Latino teenagers in the Salinas Valley with at least one immigrant parent found the teens had increased anxiety, sleep problems and blood pressure issues following the 2016 presidential election.
Just the possibility that DACA could be repealed is harming children’s health, experts said. Wendy Cervantes, director of immigration policy at The Center for Law and Social Policy, which also contributed to the court brief, said her organization conducted research at child care sites in California around the time repeal plans were first announced. Cervantes said her team spoke with teachers, child-care workers and parents.
The repeal announcement “was creating a lot of stress for families,” she said. “Our report found that children as young as 3 years old were exhibiting serious behavioral changes and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder just because of fearing about what might happen to their parents.”
Cervantes said her organization and others are holding out hope the Supreme Court will uphold the program, although a majority of justices appeared to side with the Trump administration during the hearing on Nov. 12. Another solution would be for Congress to enact legislation that protects DACA recipients, she said.
“This decision is one that has high stakes, not just for DACA recipients but for hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizen children who are critical to our nation’s future,” she said. “This is their home and we’re undermining their ability to achieve their full potential.”