DACA tied to better mental health for children of immigrants

(Reuters Health) - Protecting young undocumented immigrants known as “dreamers” from deportation may also help lower the risk of mental health problems for their U.S.-born children, a recent study suggests.

The Trump administration this week announced plans to revoke the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed about 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the country.

For the study, researchers examined data on 5,653 mothers in Oregon born just before and after the cutoff for DACA eligibility. To qualify they had to have entered the U.S. before they turned 16, no earlier than June 15, 1981.

When mothers qualified for DACA, 3.3 percent of their children had a range of mental illnesses that can be provoked by stress such as intense feelings of sadness or hopelessness, anxiety and depression.

But when mothers weren’t eligible for DACA, 7.8 percent of their kids had these mental illnesses.

“Mental illness in early childhood can have serious downstream effects,” said lead study author Jens Hainmueller, co-director of the Immigration Policy Lab at Stanford University in California.

“It can impair school performance and cause health issues such as substance abuse, obesity or cardiovascular diseases,” Hainmueller said by email. “So the costs for individuals, as well as society at large, are likely to be vast.”

About 4 million children born in the U.S. have at least one parent who is an unauthorized immigrant, researchers note in the journal Science.

To assess how fear of a parent’s deportation might influence mental health, researchers examined data on 8,610 children born to undocumented mothers in Oregon between 2003 and 2015.

The mothers had pregnancy coverage through Oregon’s Emergency Medicaid program, which pays for care provided to immigrant women who do not qualify for traditional Medicaid. The children, as U.S. citizens, were then covered by Medicaid, so researchers could see whether health records revealed a mental illness.

Researchers focused on mental health disorders that might develop in children afraid of being separated from their parents by deportation. This included what’s known as adjustment disorder, which is often triggered by a stressful life event and can result in poor performance in school or work, behavior problems, sleep difficulties, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.

The 4.5 percentage point drop in the proportion of children diagnosed with adjustment or anxiety disorders during the post-DACA period “provides evidence that mothers’ DACA eligibility sharply improved their children’s mental health,” the authors write.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove that DACA directly caused an improvement in kids’ mental health.

It also only looked at one state and might not reflect what would happen elsewhere in the U.S., the authors note.

At least some of the mental health benefits associated with DACA in the study might be explained by other factors such as increased stability and socioeconomic status, noted Dr. Bukola Salami of the University of Alberta.

“It is well known that parents’ social status has implications for child health and well being,” Salami, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email. “Immigration status is a social determinant of health, although this has not been largely recognized by health and immigration policy makers.”

The study results offer fresh evidence of the potential for deportation, or living with the fear of deportation, to have serious consequences, said Claire Brindis, co-director of the Adolescent and Young Adult Health National Resource Center at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Without their parents, many of these children may end up in the foster care system, facing a myriad of problems, or if raised by other family members they may be living in circumstances with less financial support,” Brindis, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

There’s already extensive evidence that separating children from their parents is a severe stressor for children, and the study adds to the evidence that this would hold true for families impacted by ending DACA, said Dr. Schuyler Henderson, a psychiatry researcher at Bellevue Hospital in New York.

“If you are interested in protecting American children, you need to protect their parents, wherever they are born,” Henderson, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

SOURCE: Science, online September 8, 2017.