New Study Findings on Mixed-Status Immigrant Families: Threat of Family Separation Affects Health of the Children

By Dinah Wiley

With the focus in the Nation’s Capitol on immigration reform, concerns abound about border security and about the fate of the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants residing in the U.S.  But the current debates have focused little on the 4.5 million citizen children of undocumented parents who will also be greatly affected by the legislative outcome.  A new report highlights the damaging impacts on the health of these children resulting from the precarious legal status of one or more of their parents.  Children with undocumented parents live with anxiety about whether their family can stay together in the future.  Many who experience the loss of a parent also suffer from poverty, reduced access to food and health care, and limited educational opportunities.  The report describes the behavioral and mental health problems that arise when a parent is actually arrested, detained, or deported.

The report, “Family Unity, Family Health:  How Family-Focused Immigration Reform Will Mean Better Health for Children and Families,” by Human Impact Partners (HIP),  states that an estimated 600,000 children, 150,000 in the last year alone, have been separated from one or both parents by the current U.S. detain-and-deport policies.   The HIP group, using a survey and focus groups and reporting on other studies as well, finds effects on these children of fear, anxiety, insecurity, depression, withdrawal, inability to focus, and acting out.  The authors predict that if policies resulting in arrest, detention and deportation do not change, more than 153,000 U.S. citizen children could have a parent taken away from them each year.  The projected impacts on health include:

  • 43,000 U.S. citizen children will experience a decline in their health status after a change in household income resulting from detention/deportation,
  • the remaining adult partner will likely experience poorer health and a shorter lifespan
  • absence of the primary household earner could result in over 125,000 children living in a food-insufficient household.

Children are affected when experiencing detention and deportation of others in the community even if not in their own family.  Even the fear of family separation due to lack of legal status has profound impacts on health.  A greater proportion of undocumented parents than documented parents report high levels of fear and stress-related disorders among their children.  Children of undocumented immigrants suffer poorer health and lower use of health care than children of citizens.  Almost 40 percent did not see a doctor in the past year.  These children will finish fewer years of school.

Citing other studies, the report confirms the barriers undocumented parents face in seeking out health care and other public assistance, even when one or more of their children are eligible.  The authors also offer powerful reminders of why this matters:  childhood is a formative time that establishes patterns and precursors to adult health and vitality, which then carry over to the well-being of future generations.

Among the report’s many policy recommendations, several stand out as arising directly and clearly from the research findings:  repeal mandatory detention laws and assess detention cases on an individual basis, provide a path to citizenship that is affordable and expedient, and allow legalizing immigrants access to health insurance coverage and other safety net services.  How many more children will fall through the cracks of our nation’s broken immigration system before policymakers take action?