New Report Documents Impact of Immigration Debate on Children’s Health and Development

The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) released a new report on the impact of ongoing immigration policy debates on young children. It’s an upsetting but important report to read, documenting the findings from interviews of more than 150 childhood educators and parents in six states (CA, GA, IL, NM, NC, and PA). This follows a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) in December 2017 detailing the findings from focus groups with 100 parents and interviews with 13 pediatricians across the country (AR, CA, DC, IL, MA, MD, MN, NC, PA, TX, and VT) about how the current environment is affecting immigrant families with children. Both reports shed light on how fear creates toxic stress, which has lasting negative impacts on children’s health and development.

In the last year or so, the immigration-related policy debates have spanned many topics – ending DACA, jeopardizing the status of thousands of Dreamers, penalizing “sanctuary” cities with community-trust policies, restricting family-based immigration, changing the definition of public charge, terminating temporary protected status, increasing immigration raids, and the list goes on – all of which are exceedingly complicated. It comes as no surprise that children, especially young children, do not understand the policies being debated. But they do understand and internalize the feelings of trusted adults around them – their parents, teachers, and pediatricians – and as these reports show, children in immigrant communities are afraid.

About a quarter of children living in the US have at least one immigrant parent, and 88% of these children were born in the US while the other 12% were born in a different country. These children and their families come from lots of different backgrounds all over the world, and for those children and parents born outside the US, some are lawfully residing while others are not. But the vast majority of children in immigrant families are citizens. Nevertheless, the current climate and onslaught of anti-immigration policy changes have far-reaching negative effects, impacting citizens and noncitizens alike.

Before describing the findings from the recent CLASP and KFF reports, I’d like to remind our readers of the implications of toxic stress on development. Toxic stress is the strong, unrelieved activation of the body’s stress management system. It can weaken brain development and has lasting consequences for learning, behavior, and physical and mental health. The KFF brief has this helpful summary of the research on how toxic stress impacts health on page 18:

“In the short term, toxic stress can increase the risk and frequency of infections in children as high levels of stress hormones suppress the body’s immune system. It can also result in developmental issues due to reduced neural connections to important areas of the brain. Toxic stress is associated with damage to areas of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Over the long term, toxic stress may manifest as poor coping skills and stress management, unhealthy lifestyles, adoption of risky health behaviors, and mental health issues, such as depression. Toxic stress also is associated with increased rates of physical conditions into adulthood, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, obesity, ischemic heart disease, diabetes, asthma, cancer, and post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Though I encourage you to read both reports in full, I want to draw your attention to a few key points:

First, families are taking action now even while some policy changes have not yet gone into effect. Families with young children are reacting to the fear of detention and deportation by staying indoors instead of visiting public libraries and going to the park and school absences are increasing. Families are also reluctant to sign up for needed benefits, including benefits like WIC, SNAP, and Medicaid to which their citizen children are entitled, because of fear that doing so will jeopardize their chances of gaining permanent residency and increase the risk of being separated from their children. We’ve written several times about the benefits of the welcome mat effect – more kids gain coverage as their parents gain coverage – and we know coverage is key to healthy development. This chilling effect on enrollment is like rolling up the welcome mat, and it will likely undo progress it took years to achieve.

Second, the cumulative effect of this environment of fear is likely harming millions of young children. As noted above, about a quarter of children in the US have an immigrant parent and prolonged exposure to stress undermines young children’s brain development. Children experiencing toxic stress are more likely to have physical and mental health problems as teenagers and adults. Children, even citizen children with lawfully residing parents, are worried about what would happen to them if their parents were to be deported. No child should experience toxic stress and yet it is spreading far beyond foreign-born children with temporary residency or without documentation to large groups of children living in immigrant communities and children of color regardless of their immigration status. This is setting up an entire generation of children as second-class citizens – more likely to have adverse childhood experiences that lead to chronic disease, poor mental health, and risk of substance use disorders than their white peers living in homogenous white communities.

Third, this doesn’t have to happen. CLASP offers specific policy recommendations for federal, state, and local governments under the guiding principle that the best interests of all children, including those in mixed-status families, should be central when making immigration policy decisions.

Though the immigration policy debate is far from over, the negative effects on children are already mounting. The findings from these two reports are sadly not unique. This article from Vox highlights two other reports with similar findings – one from researchers at George Washington University published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and another from the UCLA Civil Rights Project. It’s past time to change directions and put children’s health and wellbeing first. As Nelson Mandela famously said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.

Kelly Whitener is an Associate Professor of the Practice at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy’s Center for Children and Families.