Shielding immigrant mothers from deportation benefits their children’s mental health

 Gabriela Pedroza and her daughter (Photo provided)

Gabriela Pedroza and her daughter (Photo provided)

A new study in the journal Science shows that the debate over unauthorized immigrants is not just an political issue; it’s also a mental health issue.

The Trump Administration has a few days to decide whether to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program protects some young unauthorized immigrants from deportation and lets them work.

Gabriela Pedroza is a single mother in Chester County, covered by DACA who came from the U.S. from Mexico.

Her eight-year-old daughter knows her immigration status, and even goes to marches with her. But Pedroza says her daughter’s attitude changed after President Trump got elected, potentially jeopardizing Pedroza’s DACA protection.

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Gabriela Pedroza’s daughter at a rally (Photo provided)

“She became very anxious, she started experiencing bellyaches constantly,” Pedroza says. “Say I tell her that I’ll be back at 8:30 and it’s like 8:35 and mommy’s not home, she’s on the phone, ‘mommy but it’s 8:35, where are you?’ Even starting to say, ‘well if you move to Mexico you’re going to take me with you, right? You’re not going to leave me here alone?'”

Pedroza, a leader with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition, says she sees this with her friends’ children as well.

While her daughter does not have a diagnosed mental illness, a new study in the journal Science found that by protecting immigrant mothers, DACA reduced the rates of adjustment and anxiety disorders of their U.S. citizen children by more than 50 percent.

The cutoff date to qualify for DACA created a random, natural experiment. Scientists used Medicaid claims data from Oregon to look at whether DACA causes health changes, said Jens Hainmueller, a political scientist at Stanford University, the lead author of the study.  He also is co-director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab. He said this study is different from others looking at how a parent’s immigration status can impact their children’s health, because most of those show correlation instead of causation.

Hainsmueller says the study doesn’t tell us how DACA leads to better mental health outcomes, but the effect and implications are clear.

“If you care about the mental health of the children of DACA recipients, then the results clearly suggest that terminating or phasing out the program is not something that would be recommended from a mental health perspective.”

This study only uses data from Oregon, but the authors plan to repeat their analysis once they get data from bigger states such as California.

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