Harsh U.S. immigration policies are causing mental, social harm to American children
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Mental health affects all, regardless of gender, culture, and socio-economic status.  Despite the universal nature, many are unable to get the care they need because of a shortage of providers and the stigma surrounding the diagnoses.  May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to erase this stigma and educate the public of all ages on the warning signs of mental illness. This month is even more meaningful for immigrants from around the world as our nation’s increasingly harsh immigration policies have harmed the mental and social well-being of millions of American children.

Roughly one in four American children younger than 18 live in immigrant families, and over four million U.S.-citizen children have at least one undocumented parent. A sense of safety and belonging is key to their psychological development. Feeling secure is critical to them thriving emotionally, academically and socially. Conversely, evidence has shown that adverse childhood experiences, like intense uncertainty and fear, are detrimental to their health.

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Currently, too many children live in daily fear that their parents could be arrested, detained or deported at any moment. There are numerous stories of groggy children waking up to see their parents handcuffed and taken away late at night, or arrested by an ICE agent on the way to school. These heartbreaking stories will only increase if laws like Texas’ Senate Bill 4, a “show me your papers” law, continue to see the light of day. This unjust law calls on law enforcement and campus police to inquire about immigration status, including questioning children, and mandates fines and jail time for elected officials and law enforcement who fail to comply with the discriminatory law, even though it may make them complicit in violating constitutional safeguards.

Children of immigrants—the large majority of whom are U.S. citizens—are confronted daily with the effects of anti-immigrant policies, such as xenophobic comments shouted in public, bullying on the playground, and having a general feeling that they don’t belong here. All of these lead to chronic, sometimes traumatizing, stress.

Researchers and clinicians have found that stress related to immigration can cause serious physical effects on smaller kids, including tantrums and bedwetting. Older children can become withdrawn, distracted, and even have stomachaches or insomnia. They may start performing poorly in school, avoiding school altogether, or acting out in rage.

As more children of immigrants become targets of bullying, such mistreatment may lead to children withdrawing socially, which prevents them from building healthy social relationships, a crucial element of their development. As one parent from the Los Angeles area recounted, “My daughter is having nightmares. Kids are afraid to go to school. I do my best to keep the TV off. We are not criminals. We are just trying to create a better life for our children.”

The harm is not restricted to children. Undocumented parents must plan for the devastating possibility of being detained or deported, including arranging for child custody and selling property. Studies also show that punitive immigration policies create a chilling environment where parents avoid public programs like Medicaid and SNAP, and steer clear of medical attention for fear of having their status reported. The absence of medical and nutritional support only worsens a family’s well-being.

Harsh immigration enforcement can have long-lasting effects on children that aren’t immediately clear. When parents are gone, children are likely to fall into poverty, have unstable access to food and housing, and be funneled into the child welfare system, all of which predict poor educational and economic outcomes. Childhood trauma can also have a biological effect on youth that can lead to adult depression and Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS).

There is hope. A recent NCLR study has shown that Latino children of immigrants are often remarkably resilient when the right environments and support systems are in place to help them cultivate self-esteem, perseverance and a positive outlook.

Nelson Mandela famously said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Today, the administration and some lawmakers are choosing through inhumane immigration laws to separate children from their parents and instill deep anxiety and distress within immigrant communities, affecting the well-being of millions of American children for generations to come. Rather than rip apart hardworking parents from their children, our society should provide meaningful immigration reforms, and invest in these children. As one concerned eighth grade student recently wrote to his representative about his friends who live in fear:

“What should I tell my fellow classmates? I hope that you can help lead us to a fair solution so that families are not separated.”

Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) represents California’s 40th Congressional District, and is the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.  Congresswoman Grace F. Napolitano (D-Calif.) represents California’s 32nd Congressional District, and is the founder and chair of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus.  Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), an immigrant and the first Indian American woman in the House of Representatives, represents Washington’s 7th District.  Congresswomen Roybal-Allard and Jayapal are the co-chairs of the Women’s Working Group on Immigration Reform.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.