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In Florida, migrants’ families are stressed and anxious. Here’s why.

By Thomas J. Rachko, Jr.



At a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this month on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Sen. Cory Booker shared a plea: “When I hear testimony from people who contribute billions of dollars to our country’s economy, who are our first responders, who teach our children, ‘Dreamers,’ ... they live with fear and anxiety. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have that kind of cortisol pumping in your brain every single day, afraid that that one small thing that could happen could have you deported from the country — the only country you’ve ever known.”


Booker perfectly captured the precarious world that undocumented individuals, mixed status families and citizen children of immigrants inhabit in the United States in 2024. His comments point to the findings of empirical academic research on the lives and well-being of immigrants in the United States — critical findings that should inform policy discussions across the country.


Immigrants, despite being vital members of communities — especially during the pandemic — have faced what sociologists and experts on immigration policy at the Im/migrant Well-Being Scholar Collaborativehave come to call normalized expendability.

In a study published in the American Behavioral Scientist, Elizabeth Aranda, professor of sociology at the University of South Florida, and her colleagues examine how young adult DACA recipients in Florida navigated the first year of the COVD-19 pandemic. (DACA is a program to protect eligible immigrant youth who came to the United States as children from deportation.) The authors argue that “normalized expendability” characterizes how undocumented immigrants experienced legal violence — policies that harm people — through exclusion from pandemic relief measures and government aid, even though they were disproportionately represented among frontline workers.


In other words, whereas this population was critical to the lifeblood of the country, they were excluded from even basic benefits. This was possible because of government-created legal categories that made them ineligible for government aid.


This exclusion, as the authors demonstrate, further increased their vulnerabilities, not only to the disease itself, but also to their economic and social marginalization. The experiences of DACA recipients during the pandemic expose the “fear and anxiety” that Booker spoke to, part and parcel of the impacts of many policies in the U.S. toward immigrants.


What if you could measure the stress level of what it is like to be an immigrant in the United States in the Trump era over time? Another study set out to do just that.


Elizabeth Vaquera directs the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute at George Washington University, and Kathleen Roche is an associate professor of prevention and community health at the Milken Institute of Public Health there. Together with Latinx student researchers, the two professors are leading a five-year project funded by the National Institutes of Health. They published a study last fall, “Mental Health During Early Adolescence and Later Cardiometabolic Risk: A Prospective Study of US Latinx Youth,” in the Journal of Adolescent Health, and this spring, an article in JAMA Pediatrics, “US Immigration Policy Stressors and Latinx Youth Mental Health.”


Since 2018, a couple of years into the Trump presidency, the researchers have engaged and followed a cohort of 547 Latinx middle schoolers in suburban Atlanta in a longitudinal project that tracks mental health and well-being; most of the children are U.S. citizens from immigrant families. The effort is part of Caminos al Bienestar or “Paths to Well-Being,” a cutting edge research initiative that serves to “advance knowledge of how neighborhoods, schools, policy contexts and families shape the health and development of U.S. Latino/a adolescents.” The teens are surveyed on their experiences of societal stressors and on their diet, sleep patterns and physical activity; mental health symptoms like depression and anxiety; and prosocial behaviors and relationships, including with parents and at school.


The team of researchers found that Latinx youth who experience depression, anxiety or other mental health issues in middle school have a greater chance of developing sleep problems, unhealthy weight gain and sedentary behavior in high school. U.S. immigration policy stressors also take a toll on parent child relationships and in the cases of deportation and detention, mental health of children suffers not unlike the experiences of children of the incarcerated. These findings stress early diagnosis and preventive health care measures for immigrant youth, and the scholars urge that legislative bodies like Congress should “implement safeguards to mitigate potential harm conferred by anti-immigrant environments for parent-child relationships and, in turn, Latinx adolescents’ mental health.”


Research suggests that harmful media narratives around immigrants in the U.S. taxes immigrant well-being and leads to stress and anxiety. Another study of DACA recipients found that out of 50 people interviewed in the aftermath of the Trump administration decision to rescind DACA, more than half of those young immigrant adults had engaged in self harm. There are links between harmful policy and rhetoric, and immigrant mental health and well-being.


Studies like these on the mental health and well-being of immigrants in the U.S. point to a “silent crisis.” However, our society cannot afford to keep quiet about this issue any longer. Like Sen. Booker said, it’s hard to imagine “that kind of cortisol pumping in your brain every single day,” but there’s a lot of empirical research that makes the case that it’s costing people’s livelihoods.


This summer, it will be 12 years since DACA was created, yet Congress has still not passed permanent protections for “Dreamers.” It is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot allow more lives to languish in fear and uncertainty for any longer.


Originally published by Tampa Bay Times on May 24, 2024.

Photo Credit: Al Diaz/Miami Herald.

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