Deportation Threats Play a Growing Role in Mental Illness Among Children of Immigrants

Years ago, mental illness was something of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell. People were afraid to come forward about being depressed, anxious, bipolar, etc. for fear of being judged or not taken seriously.

But today, more people have fought to end the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and conversation has picked up. But now, a new conversation must start: How have deportation threats impacted the mental health of children of immigrants? In the midst of an overall stressful time for immigration in the United States, it’s important to look at how these children are emotionally and mentally affected by their parents’ risk of deportation.

A recent study looked at mental health among children from both DACA-eligible and DACA-ineligible mothers

Rally for DACA

People rally to protect DACA. | Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Researchers analyzed the mental health of 8,610 children born between 2003 and 2015. The children are all U.S. citizens, but some were born from women without Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protection, and some were born from women with DACA protection. (Reminder: DACA is the policy put in place under Barack Obama that allows children brought to the United States illegally to remain here on “deferred action” from deportation, meaning they have some time to become eligible for a U.S. work permit to start a more permanent life in the U.S.)

The study was meant to look at how the threat of a parent’s deportation affects a child’s mental health.

DACA has shed new light on the impact of deportation risk on mental health

Before DACA, mental health among the children of immigrants was indistinguishable. Since everyone was at a constantly heightened risk of potential deportation, it wasn’t possible to determine how mental health would be affected if these families were not at risk of being torn apart.

But once DACA was put in place and mothers had the ability to become temporarily protected from deportation, researchers were able to study how deportation affected the mental health of children whose parents were either protected or not protected by DACA. The study used undocumented mothers born between 1980 and 1982, some of whom were protected by DACA and some of whom were not, and their children (all children in the study are U.S. citizens).

Mental illness diagnoses were nearly cut in half among children whose mothers are protected by DACA

Immigration activists rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Immigration activists rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Researchers found that children whose mothers are at risk of deportation (not protected by DACA) had an overall diagnosis rate of 7.9%. Plus, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that Hispanic children only get help for mental illness about half as often as Caucasian children.

However, children whose mothers were offered the temporary DACA protection were only diagnosed at a rate of about 4%. This means the Obama-era policy cuts mental health risk nearly in half. Children who get relief of the stress and anxiety that accompany worrying about their parents are far less likely to have a diagnosed mental health disorder.

Despite the study’s findings, it’s important to note that determining the mental health effects of immigration policy is extremely difficult. That’s because many undocumented immigrants are reluctant to come forward for fear of deportation, which can affect the study’s results. However, researchers are confident the data they collected gives a solid look into how mental health affects children of immigrants based on the information they were able to pull from undocumented families.

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