Update 9/5: President Trump announced today that he intends to phase out DACA, which provided temporary conditional amnesty to roughly 800,000 “DREAMers” who entered the U.S. illegally as children. Below is Fatherly’s coverage of a large study that described the likely mental health fallout from this decision.
The mental health of children born to illegal immigrants is profoundly affected by fears that their mothers and fathers could be deported, new research suggests, and the federal crackdown on immigrants may be traumatizing millions of children. Researchers found high levels of anxiety among children of illegal immigrants, and noted that symptoms of psychological trauma decreased by half when parents were granted amnesty under the controversial Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was implemented by former president Obama in 2012 and is currently in limbo under Trump.
“Many of the social causes of poor health, like poverty or low education, are difficult to address through policy interventions,” coauthor on the study Linna Marten of the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University told Fatherly. “DACA is an outlier in that it had an almost instantaneous positive effect on the families involved. Offering temporary protection from deportation is a relatively straightforward policy action, one that can address the perpetuation of disadvantage that happens when children inherit their parents’ challenges.”
Roughly four million children born in the United States have at least one parent at risk of deportation, but it’s hard to get solid numbers because of illegal immigrants’ understandable reluctance to submit their personal information to researchers. Marten and colleagues suspected that these children face heightened levels of anxiety about the possibility of their parents being deported. They also suspected that DACA reduced that anxiety. For immigrants who met DACA’s requirements—they arrived in the U.S prior to age 16 and are currently under age 31; they were continuously in the country since 2007; they’re enrolled in school, have a degree or served in the armed forces; they have never been convicted of a crime—the program offered temporary authorization to work in the United States. The researchers not only found that their hypothesis held, but that the effects of DACA were drastic.
For the study, Marten and colleagues analyzed data on 5,653 mothers who were eligible for DACA and the 8,610 children born to them between 2003 and 2015. They scoured medical records for mental illnesses known to be provoked by external stress, such as acute stress disorder and adjustment disorder. Childhood mental illness costs taxpayers $13.8 billion each year, and can be particularly insidious because such conditions set affected children on a path toward lifelong mental illness—which means they’re less likely to finish school and get jobs.
“The interactions between mental health, physical health, and behavior are complex, but it’s clear that acute stress in childhood can have lifelong consequences,” Marten says. “We also know that traumatic events or chronic mental illness during the formative years of childhood put individuals at greater risk of poor outcomes later in life, such as substance abuse.”
Before DACA, all of the children were diagnosed with these psychological disorders at roughly the same rate. But after DACA was implemented and parents were granted temporary amnesty, researchers found that children of those parents eligible for DACA began displaying far lower rates of mental illness—dropping by more than half, from 7.8 percent to 3.3 percent. The implication is clear: DACA is a good thing for the mental health of immigrant children.
“Childhood mental illness accounts for the highest share of the nation’s pediatric health care spending, according to recent research—$13.8 billion in 2011 alone,” Marten says. “Because these conditions also interfere with a child’s ability to succeed in school and prepare to be a productive member of society, they are also associated with welfare dependence.”
Still, this study is not a slam-dunk for DACA. While the results suggest that continuing temporary amnesty programs improves the mental health of immigrant children (and will likely save the country money in the long-run) those opposed to DACA make similar arguments. Besides the fact that detractors—among them Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Andrew Hanen—consider Obama’s executive order unconstitutional, others highlight the harms that DACA could cause minority workers who came here legally. Economists estimate that illegal immigration has inflated the low-skill workforce such that workers would earn an estimated $800 more annually if not for DACA. And since most low-skill workers are, themselves, immigrants, some economists argue that DACA helps illegal immigrants while disenfranchising legal ones.
“Because a disproportionate percentage of immigrants have few skills, it is low-skilled American workers, including many blacks and Hispanics, who have suffered most from this wage dip,” Harvard economics professor George Borjas told Politico.
Regardless, Marten’s work demonstrates that the benefits of DACA for illegal immigrant families was almost instantaneous, and placed children on the path toward long-term health and success. Whether that influences DACA legislation is anyone’s guess, Marten says, but the point is not to sway policymakers—it’s to put all available scientific evidence on the table.
“Raising awareness that children are affected by their parent’s immigration status is an important first step,” she says. “All too often legislators only consider the people directly targeted by their policies, and overlook their families. Our findings should help leaders and parents alike understand that immigration policies like DACA shape the lives of the next generation.”