The Department of Health and Human Services recently reported that nearly 15,000 children are being held in immigrant detention centers across the United States. Most, if not all of these children are asylum-seekers, fleeing conditions of abject violence and poverty in their home countries. Regardless of one’s outlook on immigration, it is hard not to feel extremely saddened at the thought of so many children locked up, away from their loved ones and during the holiday season no less. It is even harder to fathom how this present scenario is making anyone happy. Imagine being separated from your family this holiday season.
Recent research shows that societies more open and welcoming to refugees and immigrants experience much higher happiness gains. Based on the findings of their research, the Migration Policy Institute concluded that “policies that contribute to migrant happiness are likely to create a win-win situation for both immigrants and natives.” In other words, both native- and foreign-born populations fare better in terms of overall happiness — also referred to as subjective well-being in the social sciences — when given a policy and social environment that accepts and promotes immigration.
Conversely, oppressive or negative attitudes toward immigrants and refugees are associated with declines in subjective well-being. Findings from a recent survey of 27 nations by the Pew Research Center suggest that many people worldwide, including a whopping 82 percent of Greeks, 72 percent of Hungarians, 71 percent of Italians, and 58 percent of Germans oppose immigration. That’s (potentially) a lot of unhappy people.
Policies and practices that restrict immigration such as building border walls, placing bans on certain nationalities from entering a country, and detaining and deporting individuals who lack legal status, may not only lead to happiness declines. They also heighten people’s fears and anxieties, predisposing them to negative psychological and physical health outcomes.
My research with Latin American communities in the U.S. for instance, has shown that immigrants’ fears and anxieties around the possibility of surveillance, detention, and deportation can lead to poor health in the form of depression, anxiety disorders, and avoidance of health care settings and providers.
What distinguishes societies that are more accepting of immigrants versus those that are less accepting?
This is a question that has been at the center of my own research in comparing contexts of immigrant reception in the U.S. and Italy for several years. In Italy, I’ve been particularly intrigued by the emergence of solidarity initiatives and networks between citizens and noncitizens that seek to collectivize risk and improve overall material and subjective well-being.
Building on findings from the medical and social sciences that societies rich in social capital, less unequal, and more egalitarian show higher life expectancies on average, one hypothesis of this research is that the promise of improved subjective well-being incentivizes people to enact solidarities such as take actions to feel aligned with one another — across lines of race, class and citizenship.
At a time of especially pronounced hostilities toward refugees and immigrants in the U.S., it is perhaps unsurprising that the U.S. trails far behind (18th) in world happiness rankings. Punitive immigration policies and negative attitudes toward immigrants not only harm the people directly targeted. These practices may also represent a sort of self-harm to the segment of the population that is native-born.
As the end of the year draws to a close, many of us exchange gifts because we think it will bring some shred of happiness. In our quest to spread this joy and bring more of it into our lives, perhaps this year more of us can act more humanely and compassionately toward refugees, asylum-seekers, immigrants, and other displaced persons who comprise an ever-growing segment of the global population.
Megan A. Carney is assistant professor in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona and a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project. She is the author of "The Unending Hunger: Tracing Women and Food Insecurity Across Borders" and director of the UA Center for Regional Food Studies.