DACA program tied to health of U.S.-citizen kids

(Reuters Health) - The U.S. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, has spillover benefits for the health of the young children of DACA-eligible mothers, a recent study suggests.

Researchers found that after DACA was implemented, there was a surge in enrollment of these U.S.-born kids aged 5 and younger in the national Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefit program.

The findings highlight the potential for multigenerational effects of immigration policy and should be considered in ongoing immigration debates, the study authors say.

Nearly 7 percent of all children in the U.S. have at least one parent who is an undocumented immigrant, and the vast majority of these kids are U.S. citizens, they write in JAMA Pediatrics.

“We were interested in understanding whether immigration-related policies impact how children of undocumented immigrants - children who are U.S. citizens themselves - access critical social services,” said lead author Dr. Maya Venkataramani, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

“Citizen children of undocumented immigrants represent a vulnerable population and are at risk for poorer socioeconomic and health outcomes,” Venkataramani said in an email. These are the very children who stand to benefit from these social services, she added.

“Some policymakers and healthcare professionals believe that there may be a ‘chilling effect’ - whereby immigration-related policies which confer a higher risk of deportation may lead families to shy away from applying for and accessing, services they would otherwise be eligible for.”

The study team looked at the DACA program because of its potential to create a “warming effect,” Venkataramani said.

“By reducing the risk of deportation among parents, we reasoned that their citizen children would be more likely to participate in programs like . . . (WIC), a program which has been documented to have beneficial effects on child health outcomes,” she said.

Venkataramani and her colleagues analyzed data from the 2010-2015 National Health Interview Surveys, focusing on women who were aged 19 or older, identified themselves as Hispanic, were not U.S. citizens but had lived in the U.S. for at least five years and were mothers of children aged 5 and younger.

Within this group, the researchers also looked for women who had graduated high school or had a GED certificate, to identify those likely to match the DACA-eligibility criteria. Of 1,911 children included in the analysis, one third of their mothers were likely eligible for DACA.

Overall, about 43 percent of the children participated in the WIC program. But from 2010-2012, the period before DACA went into effect, to 2014-2015, there was more than a 12 percent jump in participation by kids with DACA-eligible mothers. No change was seen among the children of mothers who didn’t qualify for DACA.

The study provides important new information on the intergenerational impact of DACA, said Duncan Lawrence, executive director of the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University in California.

“From prior research, we know a mother’s DACA eligibility reduces the stress and anxiety of her children. This analysis, using a standard method of policy evaluation, shows a link between DACA eligibility and WIC enrollment,” Lawrence, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters Health in an email.

Given the limitations of the survey data and sample, the researchers are unable to narrowly identify the eligible vs ineligible DACA population, and so the upshot from the study should be that DACA is associated with a positive effect on WIC enrollment rather than a focus on the size of that effect, said Lawrence.

“As the debate around immigration policy continues to grow, research providing evidence on the intergenerational impact of federal, state and local policy affecting children in immigrant families is increasingly important,” he said.

SOURCE: JAMA Pediatrics, online May 29, 2018.