Rescinding DACA protections on immigrant mothers could have negative health impacts on their children, Stanford study finds
Stanford researchers found that DACA protections offered to immigrant mothers can significantly improve the health and development of their children. These findings offer a timely perspective in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the program.
The Trump administration’s recent decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which granted protection from deportation to unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States as minors, affects roughly 800,000 immigrants.
But terminating DACA may also have perilous consequences for the children of those DREAMers, according to a new study published in Science by Stanford scholars. They found that the protections offered by DACA can drastically enhance health outcomes for those children.
A team of researchers led by Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab looked at a large sample of immigrant mothers born just before and after the cutoff date for DACA eligibility, and then followed their children’s health over time. After DACA was introduced in 2012, the group eligible for the program saw an immediate improvement in their children’s mental health: diagnoses of adjustment and anxiety disorders fell by more than 50 percent.
What is the major takeaway from your research?
Hainmueller: In all the debate over the DACA policy and the broader question of how to treat unauthorized immigrants who were raised in the United States, one group with a large stake in the outcome is being overlooked: Many of the “DREAMers” are raising young children – children who are U.S. citizens and who are growing up under the fear of losing a parent to deportation. DACA protections can significantly improve their health and development, which in turn shapes the course of their lives.
So far, policymakers and the press have mostly considered DACA recipients as individuals, focusing on their ability to work or pursue higher education, for example, but failing to appreciate how deeply the threat of separation affects the entire family.
What are some of the specific, detrimental effects these children may experience based on their mothers’ immigration status?
Hainmueller: In comparing groups of children whose mothers were either eligible or ineligible for DACA protection, we focused on adjustment and anxiety disorders because they involve unusually intense reactions to a life stressor – and for a child, worrying that any day your parent could be targeted for deportation is a source of severe stress.
A child diagnosed with these disorders can be depressed and withdrawn, be unable to complete schoolwork, lash out at classmates and teachers, behave recklessly, and have trouble sleeping. These are conditions that significantly impair daily functioning and interfere with children’s psychological and emotional development.
Mendoza: One of the greatest stresses to children is the loss of a parent by death, divorce, or in this case, deportation. However, in the case of deportation, the level of stress is heightened by the uncertainty of the event.
Think about a young child going to school one day and returning home and not finding their mother. Or having the father leave in the morning, and always thinking, “will this be the last time I see him?” This is the current status of 4 million children who have one undocumented parent. This is the stress and uncertainty that DACA was able to relieve.
Are there secondary effects the anxiety and stress associated with immigration status can lead to?
Hainmueller: Childhood mental health problems are associated with serious challenges later in life. Struggles in school can lead to limited job prospects and long-term reliance on welfare, and adults who experienced trauma during these formative years have higher rates of substance abuse and chronic health problems.
By curbing acute anxiety in young children, programs like DACA could have cascade effects in improving health and other outcomes across the lifespan. In addition, there are significant implications for costs given that childhood mental health disorders account for the lion’s share of pediatric health care spending in the U.S.
Were you able to see improvements in children’s mental health when parents gained protection from deportation?
Hainmueller: Our research team included clinicians who work with mothers and children, and pediatricians and obstetricians see how these stressors play out in their patients’ daily lives. So, we expected to see some improvement in the group of children whose mothers were eligible for DACA protection, but we were struck by how dramatic the change was – to see diagnoses of these disorders suddenly drop by more than half was a really stunning finding. What’s more, the improvement in these children was nearly instantaneous, emerging in the data as soon as the DACA program was introduced. It’s not every day that public policy has such an immediate effect.
Mendoza: These diagnoses were made by physicians and were independent of access to health care or other social factors. Thus, DACA in itself had a direct effect on these conditions.
Your paper mentions the “intergenerational consequences” that may occur with the cancellation of DACA. What are those consequences?
Mendoza: The intergenerational consequence occurs when you affect one generation (mother) in such a way that the next generation (children) is significantly affected in their development and well-being. We see this in a number of social and psychological factors. So, we want to make sure everyone understands that immigration and its enforcement is not just an issue of one person, but rather an issue of multiple effects that can have significant implications for American children.
Hainmueller: Our study shows that unauthorized immigration status directly contributes to health disparities, and that these disparities can be passed down from parents to children. Our colleagues in the medical field see this in their clinics, and we as data scientists see it in the patterns we uncover in Medicaid claims. In the absence of sound policies, there’s a perpetuation of disadvantage that depletes the health and human capital of not only unauthorized immigrants but also their U.S. citizen children.
Unlike other social determinants of health, however, this is an area where a relatively straightforward policy action — offering protection from deportation — can make dramatic and swift improvements in population health.
Now that legislators are weighing their options in the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind DACA protections, few are taking this wider view of the policy because interdisciplinary research like ours is only just now starting to paint the full picture and provide rigorous, causal evidence that goes beyond the correlations we have seen between unauthorized status and outcomes.
Jens Hainmueller is also a professor at the Graduate School of Business. Fernando Mendoza is the associate dean of minority advising and programs and professor of pediatrics at Stanford Medicine. The study was also co-authored by Stanford scholars Duncan Lawrence, Immigration Policy Lab; Tomás R. Jiménez, professor of sociology; and David Laitin, professor of political science.