How the Fear of Immigration Enforcement Affects the Mental Health of Latino Youth
A silent, often overlooked crisis—one of many facing the incoming Biden administration—is the high incidence of anxiety and other mental-health symptoms exhibited by many Latino youth, U.S. born and immigrant alike. Beyond the stressful life experiences and transitions that all adolescents experience, Latino teenagers face discrimination and fears related to their precarious position in the United States as immigrants or children of immigrants, a status that has become more tenuous with ramped-up immigration enforcement in recent years.
The Migration Policy Institute (MPI), University of Houston, and Rhode Island College conducted a survey of 306 Latino high school students in Texas and Rhode Island to examine the vulnerabilities of this population. The results of the study were published in a report earlier this year. Participating students included immigrants and U.S.-born children with parents born in Latin American countries—predominantly Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The students answered questions about their mental health and related topics, and the research team conducted interviews with educators in eight schools these students attended and with leaders and health and social service providers in the surrounding communities in Harris County, Texas and several locations in Rhode Island.
More than half the sample reported levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that were high enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis. They also reported, on average, more than seven traumatic life events such as witnessing assault, being assaulted, losing a loved one, or being separated from a parent. Reported mental-health symptoms were as common among U.S.-born Latinos as those who were immigrants themselves, and the symptoms were reported at roughly the same levels in low-enforcement Rhode Island as in high-enforcement Harris County, which includes Houston and its suburbs.
The prevalence of mental-health symptoms was closely related to students’ fear of immigration enforcement. Take for instance anxiety, which reached a level high enough in two-thirds of the sample to warrant assessment for potential treatment by a mental-health professional. Fifty-nine percent of sampled students feared that someone close to them would be deported, and 56 percent knew someone who was deported. Study results revealed a high level of anxiety in three-quarters of these students. The share with this level of anxiety rose to 83 percent among those who were worried about deportation of a family member if that person participated in a public-benefit program such as food stamps or Medicaid. Fear of participating in these programs is common among immigrants due to the Trump administration’s well-publicized public-charge rule that could lead to immigrants being denied green cards if they participate in the rule’s listed programs.
The MPI study measured several different forms of anxiety. Separation anxiety was particularly acute, exceeding the clinical level in more than half the sample. Separation anxiety was strongly related to the fear of having a parent, relative, or a close friend deported. About 30 percent of sampled Latino youth were so afraid of immigration enforcement that they avoided driving, extracurricular activities, religious services, and community events—all important to adolescents’ social development and economic mobility. Notably, 22 percent of U.S.-born youth surveyed changed their behavior in one of these ways, likely because they feared their activities could lead to a parent or other family member being deported.
Anxiety was also highly correlated with perceived discrimination due to race, ethnicity, language, and other factors. Those Latino students who feared that a family member or friend would be deported were more likely to perceive that society discriminated against them. Those who both felt discriminated against and feared the deportation of someone close demonstrated the most anxiety. The Trump administration has made multiple changes to immigration policies and justified the changes with strong rhetoric that cast immigrants—especially Latinos—as lawbreakers, competitors for U.S. jobs, and welfare dependents. This rhetoric was widely covered by broadcast and social media, potentially increasing the discrimination and anxiety that it provokes. In a 2018 nationwide survey, 40 percent of Latinos reported being victims of discrimination.
At the outset of the study, the researchers expected that fear of enforcement and the accompanying anxiety would be lower in Rhode Island than Harris County because of the differing policy contexts. In Rhode Island, the governor issued a “sanctuary” executive order limiting cooperation between the local police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), while Texas passed a law requiring such cooperation. In fact, Harris County had the highest number of ICE arrests of any county during 2018 and 2019. Although students in Harris County were more likely to report fearing that someone close to them would be deported, the study found similar levels of anxiety and other mental-health symptoms in the two study sites. Rhode Island’s more protective policy, then, did not shield students from the mental-health conditions associated with federal immigration policies, suggesting that the political climate contributing to the students’ anxieties is national—not regional—in character.
The COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic hardship have increased the stress on Latino communities, as they have been disproportionately affected by virus infections, deaths, and unemployment relative to the general population. The combination of pandemic-related stress, ongoing discrimination, and longstanding fears of immigration enforcement may have elevated mental-health risks above those observed in the 2018-19 study. The size of the Latino youth population and its central role in the future U.S. labor force make the mental-health crisis in this population too critical to overlook, despite the numerous challenges facing the country as the new administration takes power.
The incoming Biden administration’s discourse about immigration will likely emphasize the benefits of immigration, while proposed policy changes such as narrowing the scope of immigration arrests and deportations, fully restoring the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and reversing the public-charge rule may contribute to lowering anxiety within the Latino youth population. But while shifts in federal policy and rhetoric are important, they will need to be accompanied by sustained attention in schools and other institutions to the mental-health issues faced by Latino youth and provision of counseling and other services to address these issues. These children represent one-quarter of all U.S. high school students, and they constitute the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force. Their well-being and success are ultimately the country’s.