New federal proposals are already hurting immigrant children — long-term costs could be worse

New federal proposals are already hurting immigrant children — long-term costs could be worse
© Getty Images

“Panicked.” “Very, very scared.” “Constant anxiety.” These words describe immigrant families’ reactions to recent White House proposals to deny legal status to immigrants who have relied on public benefits.

In recent days, many immigrant parents have called local health providers demanding to be dropped from federal nutrition programs in fear that accepting federal aid could keep them from getting a green card. This trend is not isolated to one community. According to news reports, agencies in 18 states have seen enrollment drops of up to 20 percent, which they attribute largely to fears about immigration policies.

Immigrant families are pulling out of programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which provides infant formula, whole grain breads, milk and other food and nutritional support for low-income pregnant women and children during the crucial first five years of life. They are pulling out despite being eligible: Immigrant children born in this country are U.S. citizens, and thus qualify for WIC.

Public health advocates have been quick to point to the increased risk for low birth weight and other health problems that could result. Yet little attention has been given to an equally concerning effect: extreme parental stress and the domino effect it has on children’s health and well-being.

Even though the policy has not been formally enacted, it is already provoking stress and fear among immigrants, both documented and undocumented. As a community and developmental psychologist, I know how harmful family stress is for children’s development.

When families are stressed, children have more behavior problems and delinquency, are more likely to get in trouble in school and have lower grades. This is particularly true for immigrant families, who live with constant fears of being separated from family members and of being discriminated against in U.S. society.

My own research on Mexican immigrant families in North Carolina shows that when immigrant fathers feel disconnected from mainstream U.S. culture, parenting behaviors worsen. Fathers become harsher and more withdrawn with their children. Mothers were also less warm with their children, less likely to praise good behavior or show physical affection.

The proposed policy changes single out immigrant families for different treatment, the effects of which also can trickle down to children. In a separate study of Mexican immigrants in the workplace, I found that mothers who perceive discrimination at work have more harsh interactions with their young children, including yelling, threatening, and losing their temper.

Positive interactions with parents at home are one of the foundations for healthy child development. Everyday negative interactions and worries can add up for young children, and that accumulation of stress can have long-term consequences. Accumulated stress has been shown to contribute to lower educational attainment, increased delinquency and worse job outcomes.

Rather than proposing policies that increase stress and fear, we should look for ways to welcome and successfully integrate immigrants into American life. Doing so is an investment in the healthy development of immigrant children. Many of these children are U.S. citizens, after all. They are also tomorrow’s workers and parents.

Anna Gassman-Pines is the WLF Bass Connections associate professor of public policy and Psychology and Neuroscience in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. She is also associate director of the Duke Center for child and family policy.