“After the election, I thought I was lower than everyone in society, that I had no voice or role or place here — an alien, like people say . . . But then I got to a point where I didn’t care because I knew I was going to commit suicide and nothing would bother me after death,” — William, a 16 year old immigrant from the Dominican Republic
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program
Following President Donald Trump’s recent movement towards an end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the news media and journalistic literature has been scrambling to publish information describing the program to the general public. An extensive amount of this literature has been dedicated to analysing the economic benefits that DACA recipients bring to the United States economy. Some studies have estimated that summarily deporting all of the immigrants previously covered under DACA would cost the U.S. economy upwards of $280 billion. This type of commentary describes what DACA should mean to U.S. citizens, but not enough attention is given to what DACA means to the immigrants themselves.
The following sections will touch upon the effects that DACA has on a little explored aspect of immigrant’s lives, their mental health. There have been some impressive studies done on this topic, and now it is important to have a conversation about it.
First, take a quick look at the basics of the DACA program.
The program was introduced by Barack Obama in 2012 through an act of
prosecutorial discretion. It is designed to protect from deportation undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. The protected immigrants receive work authorization and a two year renewable deferred action status. Most of them are employed, most are educated, and none of them have committed a felony. The following is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) criteria for DACA eligibility:
- Were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012;
- Came to the United States before reaching your 16th birthday;
- Have continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, up to the present time;
- Were physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making your request for consideration of deferred action with USCIS;
- Had no lawful status on June 15, 2012;
- Are currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States; and
- Have not been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.
Approximately 800,000 people are registered under DACA. In 2012, around 200,000 children had parents who were eligible for DACA.. The program has been beneficial to the welfare of immigrants and their children.
DACA and Immigrant’s Mental Health
There are hundreds of sources illustrating how higher wealth and socioeconomic status are associated with positive mental health. An article from Dartmouth University shows higher rates of stress hormones in those living in poverty, another article from the World Health Organization ties poverty to poor mental health, and another from The Atlantic discusses possible remedies. Significant mental health benefits for immigrant families stem from the DACA program’s history of poverty alleviation. Additionally, immigrants and their children are more likely to seek out mental health care services when they experience less fear about Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and deportation.
Without the protection of DACA for their parents, children can suffer from many anxieties, including “parental anxiety, fear of separation, and acculturative stress.” In the following excerpt from the New York Times, an assistant professor at Harvard University, describes the effects of immigration enforcement related anxieties on children:
Experts on immigrant mental health say they have already seen a spike in symptoms since President Trump’s inauguration. Roberto Gonzalez, an assistant professor of education at Harvard who studies undocumented youth, says he has seen parents pull their children from school out of fear.
“This kind of elevated fear and anxiety can have detrimental physical and mental health effects in the long term,” he told me. “Many of the young people I’ve been studying have shown physical and emotional manifestations of stress: chronic headaches, toothaches, ulcers, sleep problems, trouble getting out of bed in the morning, eating issues.” It will get only worse, he said, with Mr. Trump’s DACA announcement.
A study in Social Science and Medicine elaborates on these mental health effects. It states that the stigma immigrants feel due to strict immigration enforcement practices can lead to depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. The children of deported parents often assume new responsibilities and face economic challenges on their own, exacerbating mental health issues. Deportation related fears also have a chilling effect on integration efforts and access to healthcare for immigrant families; reports in Massachusetts show evidence of immigrants missing health care appointments due to fears of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local police. The following infographic from the same Social Science and Medicine study illustrates many of the effects of aggressive immigration enforcement on immigrants health.
Clearly, there are detrimental and unanticipated effects that stem from aggressive immigration enforcement. The protected status that DACA recipients receive helps both parents and children get the help they need, and it decreases mental health related stressors. These next sections will provide a look into specific studies regarding mental health and DACA.
The Scientific Literature
A recent article published in Science is aptly titled “Protecting Unauthorized Immigrant Mothers Improves their Children’s Mental Health.” The study took a sample of immigrant mothers, some with birthdays before the DACA cutoff and some after, and looked at their children’s mental wellbeing. The results indicated a relationship between DACA eligibility and childhood mental health. The children of parents with unauthorized status were significantly more likely to suffer from various developmental issues and health problems than children whose parents were authorized. The study showed that children whose mothers were eligible for DACA were about 50 percent less likely to suffer from an adjustment or anxiety disorder. The specific drop was 7.8 percent to 3.3 percent. It was concluded that the immigration status of the mothers had a dramatic effect on the mental health of their children.
Another study published in The Lancet Public Health journal titled “Health consequences of the US Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration programme: a quasi-experimental study,” exhibited similar findings. A decrease of moderate to severe psychological stress was observed in DACA eligible study participants, while non-DACA eligible participants remained relatively the same in terms of mental health.
This last study was conducted by UC Davis’ Center for Poverty Research. The following information was published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. This study looked at developmental issues alongside mental health issues. The researchers found that in California, children of unauthorized Mexican parents are 53 percent more likely than children of US-born Mexican American and white parents to be at risk of developmental problems. In adolescence, children of unauthorized parents have higher rates of depression and anxiety than children of authorized parents.
By compiling all of the previous literature into one overarching narrative it is clear that any attempt to do away with the DACA program will most likely have negative effects on the mental health of immigrants and their children. This report strongly recommends keeping in place, and even expanding the DACA program. The economic benefits are enormous, the humanitarian benefits are noble, and the mental health benefits are well documented.
One final note is the acknowledgement that conducting proper research regarding undocumented immigrant communities is difficult. There are issues of perceived researcher credibility and trust of confidentiality regarding immigration status that make it hard to paint an accurate picture; the previously cited Science article touches on these issues. While the findings of the previous studies are by no means conclusive, the general trend does show positive mental health benefits stemming from the DACA program, and negative mental health effects of aggressive immigration enforcement. If you take anything away from this report it should be the realization that on top of the benefits to the United States, the DACA program does so much more for immigrant families.