Deportation Takes a Mental and Physical Toll on Children

PHOTO: Children participate in a rally calling on President Obama to suspend deportations and for Congress to pass an immigration reform that?s inclusive of all 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. on May 11, 2013 in Homestead, Florida.Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Andres Hemenez (L) and Martina Hemenez hold signs reading 'Stop Deportation Now' as they and others participate in a rally calling on President Barack Obama to immediately suspend deportations and for Congress to pass an immigration reform that?s inclusive of all 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. on May 11, 2013 in Homestead, Florida.

One of the less-talked-about aspects of removing undocumented people from the United States is the mental and physical toll it takes on the children.

As it turns out, a new report from advocacy organization Human Impact Partners argues that the threat of deportation actually causes long-term stress in children, which can lead to everything from poor performance in school to depression.

Dr. Karen Hacker, senior medical director of public and community health at Cambridge Health Alliance and executive director of the Institute for Community Health, a collaboration of three Harvard University teaching hospitals, said on a call with reporters that she's seen first-hand the negative impacts of such long-term stress on children.

There are two types of stress, she said. Tolerable stress, which is short-term, and toxic stress, which is prolonged. Short-term stress isn't necessarily bad and can even be good for some kids. It allows some children to perform at optimum level on a test or in a championship soccer game, for example.

But drawn-out periods of stress can cause problems with cardiovascular health. They can lead to anxiety and depression, which "can actually disrupt your developmental processes," Hacker said.

The obvious solution is to decrease stress, but that's difficult for kids who fear their parents or grandmother might not be there when they get home from school. And it's even harder when kids see that fear realized.

One of her patients, a teenage girl in the Boston area, began experiencing sleep problems and having nightmares, and her performance in school suffered because she couldn't concentrate. The changes seemed sudden until Hacker discovered the girl's live-in grandmother had just been deported.

And when rumors of deportation become real like that, it can impact more than just the one family. Deportation can negatively affect the mental and physical health of the surrounding community. People who used to see local police as an ally might all of the sudden turn a corner to avoid driving by a police car because they saw an officer arrest an undocumented neighbor. That distrust can have far-reaching consequences. An undocumented woman might not report sexual abuse or gun violence, for instance, because she is afraid to talk to the police.

"The evidence overwhelmingly showed current policies are harming hundreds of thousands of children of undocumented immigrants, many of them U.S. citizens," Lili Farhan, co-director of Human Impact Partners and one of the authors of the new report, said on the call.

An immigration reform "proposal that puts family unity first" would be best, she added. Her organization and others have argued that reforms currently up for debate in both the House and Senate add undue financial burdens for undocumented immigrants when it comes to getting the healthcare they so desperately need. Some Republicans want to require undocumented immigrants to purchase health insurance before they embark on a path to citizenship, but undocumented immigrants cannot access subsidies to help pay for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

"Access to benefits is considered controversial," Wendy Cervantes, vice president of immigration and child rights policy at advocacy organization First Focus, said on the call, "but if we want full citizens, they need access to benefits that can make them healthy and strong."