Exploring the Psychological Toll of Anti-Immigration Rhetoric and Policy

On Wednesday, President Trump officially ordered the National Guard to assist patrol agents at the U.S./Mexico border. The action followed his calls earlier this week for stronger border-control laws, and an Easter Sunday tweet opposing Obama-era policies that have allowed certain illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to attend college and become permanent residents. Last November, Trump said he would phase that program out entirely.

President Trump has made no secret of his intentions to crack down on illegal immigration. But the psychological toll of his rhetoric reaches beyond those who are in the U.S. illegally, a new study suggests.

Visual: Michael Vadon/Flickr/CC

Such actions no doubt weigh heavily on the minds of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, but a new study of psychological distress suggests that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump era takes a toll on U.S. Latino parents regardless of their legal residency. Overall, the study’s results, which were derived from a survey conducted last November of 213 U.S. Latino adults in a mid-Atlantic suburb who have at least one adolescent child, might not bode well for the nation’s future workforce and leadership.

About two-thirds of the parents surveyed were in the U.S. legally. The majority of the sample arrived in the U.S. from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Beyond discussions about whether to renew or roll back well-known policies like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), immigration and policy changes during 2017 included plans to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for immigrants from some countries, and expanded deportation enforcement for more long-term residents without criminal records.

Depending upon their standing as U.S. citizens, or residents with permanent, TPS or undocumented status, between 14 percent and 18 percent of the parents surveyed reported that they had been frequently stopped, questioned or harassed by immigration authorities in the past three months, says public health researcher Kathleen M. Roche of George Washington University, who led the study. The results were published March 2 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Parents who reported this difficult experience have eight times the odds of scoring high on a test for anxiety, depression and other symptoms of psychological distress compared with parents who said they were stopped, questioned or harassed less frequently or not at all during the period, the researchers found.

Other experiences or responses linked to immigration policy changes that increased the odds of a parent’s high distress score by as much or even more included reporting that one’s child had been negatively affected by immigration actions, worries about their child finishing school, and having spoken to a child about changing their behavior such as where they spent time after school.

Undocumented residents should be at a higher immediate risk for deportation or psychological stress over immigration issues than residents with TPS status, which often extends for several years (nearly all of the TPS parents in the new study had lived in the U.S. for 15 years or more). But most of the studied responses to new immigration policies and news were at least as common among parents with TPS status as they were among undocumented parents and parents with permanent resident status.

As logic might predict, parents who were U.S. citizens were much less likely to report nearly all types of responses to immigration policy changes, suggesting that citizenship appeared to have a protective effect. But here, Roche was struck by the fact that that even U.S. citizens among the sampled group reported similarly frequent encounters with immigration authorities. “We don’t have evidence from this study to definitively explain why this was the case, but it did stand out that this was the one response that did not differ,” Roche says. “The other responses were much more pronounced for non-U.S. citizens.”

That may sound a lot like evidence of ethnic or racial profiling, but Roche declined to speculate, saying only: “One could presume that it is difficult to tell citizenship on the outside of one’s appearance.”

Whatever the cause, previous research shows that children pick up on these anxieties, which spill over and threaten their own wellbeing and sense of security, Roche says. A total of 75 percent of the adolescent children of the studied parents were U.S. citizens, and the rest were protected under DACA or eligible for it. Nationwide, 25 percent (19.5 million) of children 18 and under are Hispanic, according to 2016 U.S. Census data analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

So, even if lawmakers never pass legislation to protect them, most of these children are here to stay. Yet for many, their mental health is likely threatened as a result of an anxiety-ridden family environment under the current immigration climate, the new study suggests.

“The concern is that these adolescents are the next generation of individuals in our workforce,” Roche says, “and on whom we will depend for the success of this country economically and otherwise.”