Deportation threat worsens Latinos’ anxiety, mental health

A hostile national environment that threatens Latino noncitizens with deportation is associated with psychological distress among not only Latino noncitizens but also Latino U.S. citizens who aren’t directly vulnerable to deportation, a Cornell-led research group found.

When people who look like you appear to be targeted, either by the government or others in your community, that is distressing,” said Neil Lewis Jr. ’13, associate professor of communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-author of Deportation Threat Predicts Latino U.S. Citizens and Noncitizens’ Psychological Distress, 2011-2018,” which published Feb. 20 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Even among those with citizenship status,” Lewis said, “seeing people who share your demographic characteristics being targeted can invoke a sense of uncertainty. The thought that they might find a way to come after you can make you worry, too.”

The study’s lead author is Asad L. Asad, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University and a former postdoctoral researcher in the Center for the Study of Inequality. Other co-authors are Amy L. Johnson, assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University; and Christopher Levesque ’13, assistant professor of law and society at Kenyon College.

For their study, the researchers used eight years of data, both public and restricted access, from the National Health Interview Survey, a nationally representative survey of adults age 18 and older that measures their health care access, mental and physical health, and other health behaviors.

The researchers had to secure “special sworn status” from the Census Bureau in order to view the restricted-access data, and had to navigate a complex process in order to use the information to protect the anonymity of the individuals in the data.

The researchers focused on measures of psychological distress, using the Kessler Psychological Distress (K6) index, which consists of six questions focused on: sadness; nervousness; restlessness; worthlessness; hopelessness; and the feeling that everything is an effort. Answers are on a 0-4 scale, with 0 being distressed “none of the time” and 4 being distressed “all the time,” and represent a generalized measure of mental health.

The team started by focusing on six key events that occurred from 2011 to 2018: the announcement of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in June 2012; the announcement of the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) in November 2014; the DAPA injunction in February 2015; the 2016 presidential election; DAPA’s recission in June 2017; and DACA’s recission (ultimately reversed in the courts) in September 2017. The study focused on respondents who completed the survey within 30 days before or after each event.

Of those, the election of Donald Trump as president was most impactful in worsening psychological distress; the announcements of DACA and DAPA had a small ameliorating effect, Asad said.

The election certainly had the biggest identifiable effect for Latino noncitizens,” he said. “We didn’t find anything comparable for the other groups in the 30 days following the election, although we did find that the announcement of both DACA and DAPA reduced low-income naturalized citizens’ reports of psychological distress.”

As a second step, the research team considered whether dramatic societal events were less important than the broader national environment in which they occurred. “We wondered whether more everyday experiences of immigration enforcement – measured in terms of actual enforcement actions and the national conversation surrounding immigration – might end up mattering a bit more than the big events,” Asad said. “And it turns out they do.”

The study yielded four main results: psychological distress among Latinos overall, and non-Hispanic Black and white U.S.-born citizens, was similar and increased across the study period; Latinos’ citizenship status played a key role in patterning their psychological distress; few of the dramatic societal events were associated with Latino noncitizens’ (and some U.S. citizens’) psychological distress; and the broader institutional and social “climate” regarding deportation threat is associated with Latino psychological distress, in both citizens and noncitizens.

“We find that for noncitizens – those who are legally vulnerable to deportation – their psychological distress is associated with national trends in actual enforcement actions, which we refer to as the institutional environment,” Asad said. “But for U.S.-born citizens, we’re finding that the broader national conversation around immigration enforcement nationwide – the ‘social climate’ – ends up mattering most for their month-to-month changes in psychological distress.”

The study points to the spillover consequences of a changing national context of deportation threat on Latino U.S. citizens and noncitizens.

“We must look at the consequences of immigration enforcement on both Latino noncitizens who are directly vulnerable to it and Latino U.S. citizens who may be implicated in it, either because of family relationships or because they are racialized as noncitizens by virtue of their ethnic background,” Asad said. “When we do that, we see that the national environment of deportation threat is sufficiently scary as to render people more distressed psychologically, even if they’re not the targets of those policies.”

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Abby Kozlowski