The Trump Administration’s “anti-immigrant sentiment” is engendering heightened levels of stress and anxiety among children of immigrant families and is keeping kids from accessing healthcare and attending school, according to a new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).
Immigrant parents fearing deportation are increasingly isolating their families inside their homes to avoid potential interaction with the authorities, said the report which was informed by interviews with more than 150 parents, educators and staff at community-based service providers. Some families report only leaving the house when absolutely necessary, like to go to work or pick up groceries.
As a result, the children of these families are no longer accessing parks and libraries. In some cases, parents are keeping their children out of school and putting off doctor appointments.
Parents are also fearful to enroll children in programs or benefits, worried that their information will be shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Early education providers report drops in attendance and lower parent participation in programs.
This disruption to daily routine and the underlying fear causing these changes is leaving kids anxious and scared, according to CLASP.
“Young children’s day-to-day lives were described as clouded by persistent fear of being separated from their parents or other loved ones,” says the report.
The Trump Effect
Since taking office, President Trump has signed multiple executive orders that “significantly increased the scope and intensity of immigration enforcement,” the report notes.
One such order, dubbed “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior in the U.S.” brought a three-fold increase in immigration enforcement agents and directed local law enforcement agencies to collaborate with ICE.
Trump has also rescinded Obama-era immigration enforcement priorities, effectively making all undocumented immigrants a target for deportation, including parents.
One policy affected by this is ICE’s 2013 Parental Interests Directive, which had, prior to Trump’s executive order, encouraged immigration officials to avoid arresting and deporting undocumented immigrant parents of U.S. citizens who are otherwise law-abiding.
Perhaps more pervasively problematic than these policy shifts is the hostile rhetoric and increased tension around immigration, as well as the bevy of xenophobic comments from Trump and other high-ranking government officials.
Kids are acutely tuned into this, the report says, and are suffering as a result.
Approximately 9 million kids younger than 8 – about 26 percent of all young children in America – live in a household with at least one foreign-born family member.
Preschool teachers and childcare staff report an uptick in behaviors reflecting stress and anxiety in kids, like aggression, hyperactivity and withdrawing from their environments.
The symptoms are worse among children who have had a parent deported or detained, the report says. A 2010 study found that children who witnessed immigration raids exhibited problems with basic functions like sleeping and eating, started crying more and were afraid more often, with these short-term symptoms lasting for months after the incident.
“A critical buffer to the detrimental effects of stress is a protective relationship, such as with a parent who can provide comfort and a sense of safety,” writes Wendy Smith, in a recent op-ed in The Chronicle of Social Change.
The stress and anxiety of parents and caregivers is trickling down to their children, too, according to the report. Not only do the negative feelings rub off on the kids, but parents struggling with this level of fear are less equipped to meet children’s needs.
“Young children depend on adults for their basic needs and emotional support,” the report says. “While parents are doing their best to manage in unmanageable situations, for many the stress is overwhelming, especially as they are often unable to get the information and resources they need.”
The high and persistent levels of stress and anxiety — sometimes called “toxic stress” — experienced by children in immigrant or mixed-status families has concerning long-term implications.
“This level of stress can interfere with young children’s physical brain development, altering how they learn and their ability to manage their emotions,” according to the report. “It can also lead to physical and mental health problems that last into adulthood.”
Recommendations to Reverse the Trend
A range of recommendations was offered, directed at the administration and lawmakers at the federal, state and local levels, as well as the philanthropic sector.
The report authors call on the Trump administration to ensure that “the best interest of children, including U.S. citizen children living in mixed status families, are held paramount in immigration policy decisions.”
Specifically, CLASP suggests emphasizing discretion around the arrest, detention and deportation of immigrant parents, in line with ICE’s Parental Interests Directive. They also recommend that the Department of Homeland Security expand and increase enforcement of its sensitive locations policy to avoid interfering with children’s access to education and wellness services.
The report asks Congress to enact legislation that provides undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship and to ensure immigration judges can take into account the trauma separation would cause the child when deciding the fate of immigrant parents.
Moving away from policy, the authors single out the potential influence the philanthropic sector could have by making “investments in immediate and urgent support to children in immigrant families,” including policy advocacy, low-cost legal services, and research around the impact and developmental implications immigration enforcement has on children.
Protecting and supporting children of immigrants serves to benefit not just those families and communities, but the country as a whole, the report argues.
“Children of immigrants represent a large and growing share of young children, and the overwhelming majority of them are U.S. citizens,” the report says. “Our [country’s] future is tied to their health and well-being, as well as their success in school and later careers.”