How US Teens Perceive Immigration Law Is Causing Them Anxiety and Insomnia

"Youth living in less supportive environments will likely be suffering more and potentially in silence and fear."

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Twenty-five percent of children in the United States live in immigrant families, the majority of which originate from Latin American countries. While most of these children are US-born citizens, 7.3 percent of their parents are not and are undocumented. These families are being increasingly targeted by federal authorities under the direction of President Donald Trump, and in turn, data shows that the health of these children has eroded as they’ve become worried teenagers.

A study released Monday in JAMA Pediatrics documents the mental and physical health of 397 US-born Latinx adolescents, who primarily identify as Mexican American. They each took part in a longitudinal study of Mexican farmworker families in California. Each adolescent in the study has at least one parent who is an immigrant, and the documentation status of the parent was not recorded.

At the age of 14, each adolescent was assessed for anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as overall health, blood pressure, and body mass. This process was repeated when they were 16 — one year after President Trump was elected. This time, they were additionally asked about how well they were sleeping and how concerned they were about the effects of immigration policies on their families.

Lead author Brenda Eskenazi, Ph.D., director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health, tells Inverse that prior to the study, her team — both from spending time in this community and from anecdotal evidence — suspected that that anti-immigration rhetoric might be impacting the health of the adolescents.

A protestor supporting the policy Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

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When they examined the adolescents’ levels of anxiety on a well-established scale of behavior and looked at that information in relation to how they felt about US immigration policies, their suspicions were confirmed.

Between 41 and 45 percent of the 16-year-olds reported that they were at least sometimes worried about the impact of these policies, that their families would be separated, and that a family member would be reported to immigration officials.

Furthermore, these teenagers, compared to their state at the age of 14, had sleep problems, higher anxiety levels, and blood pressure changes. The more worried the teenager, the higher risk they had for these issues.

“Sadly, the results from this study only confirm what we see among our student body of Latinx students at UC Berkeley and what we are hearing in the clinical realm with regard to adolescents’ concerns for their parents and their family members,” co-author and UC Berkeley associate professor Juliana Deardorff, Ph.D. tells Inverse.

Eskenazai emphasizes the message of this study is that these children are US citizens — not DACA, not undocumented, and not immigrants — and these policies are affecting them. Furthermore, these results likely represent a best case scenario: Most of these adolescents live in a sanctuary city, and all live in a sanctuary state.

“Youth living in less supportive environments will likely be suffering more and potentially in silence and fear,” Eskenazai says.

However, whether or not their status as birthright citizens will keep them permanently from deportation is uncertain. In October, President Trump announced he wished to use an executive order to end birthright citizenship, a policy exercised by 30 other countries, including Mexico. That idea has been paused, but actions taken by Trump to target immigrant families continue: He’s currently threatening to send Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to large immigrant communities in 10 cities if Democrats don’t submit changes to a debated asylum law.

Trump tweeted this threat, alarming thousands of families. 


Eskenazai says that there’s currently not an understanding of how this “toxic stress” will affect the wellbeing of these teenagers in the future, but it is likely to affect “their ability to stay focused in school and overall health.” She notes that health care providers need to be sensitive and aware of the issues children of immigrant parents face, and should consider supporting the American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2017 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. 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.

“We need strong policies at the state and federal level to protect our young citizens, to help them feel safe, and not dread that they are going to be separated from family members due to deportation,” Deardorff says.

Then they can focus on their school, friends, activities and work — the things that teenagers are supposed to be thinking about.

Partial Abstract:
Objective: To assess whether concerns about immigration policy are associated with worse mental and physical health among US citizen children of Latino immigrants.
Design, Setting, and Participants: This study of cohort data from the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS), a long-term study of Mexican farmworker families in the Salinas Valley region of California, included a sample of US-born adolescents (n = 397) with at least 1 immigrant parent. These adolescents underwent a health assessment before the 2016 presidential election (at age 14 years) and in the first year after the election (at age 16 years). Data were analyzed from March 23, 2018, to February 14, 2019.
Results: In the sample of 397 US-born Latino adolescents (207 [52.1%] female) and primarily Mexican American individuals, nearly half of the youth participants worried at least sometimes about the personal consequences of the US immigration policy (n = 178 [44.8%]), family separation because of deportation (177 [44.6%]), and being reported to the immigration office (164 [41.3%]). Those with high compared with low or moderate PIPES scores had higher self-reported mean anxiety T scores (5.43; 95% CI, 2.64-8.23), higher maternally reported anxiety T scores (2.98; 95% CI, 0.53-5.44), and worse PSQI scores (0.98; 95% CI, 0.36-1.59). Youth participants with high PIPES scores reported statistically significantly increased levels of anxiety over the 2 visits (adjusted mean difference-in-differences, 2.91; 95% CI, 0.20-5.61) and not significantly increased levels of depression (adjusted mean difference-in-differences, 2.63; 95% CI, –0.28 to 5.54).
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