The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t ignore the health impact of immigration policy

Foreign nationals are arrested during a targeted enforcement operation conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Feb. 7. (Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Trump administration is considering using as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants, according to a draft memo obtained by the Associated Press.

Although emergence of the 11-page document, bearing the name of Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly, does not mean that the policy will actually be implemented, such a militarization of our immigration enforcement would be unprecedented. White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the AP report was “100 percent not true” and “irresponsible.”

Regardless, news of the draft will undoubtedly send out shock waves of stress among immigrants who fear that the new administration will be even more forceful than the Obama administration in deporting immigrants living in the United States illegally. As White House policymakers weigh their options for executive orders on immigration policy, they need to consider the health of immigrants and Latino citizens living in the United States.

What’s really pushing politics to the right? Immigration.

The average person who has a marginal understanding of immigration policy might quickly dismiss the extent of the health impact that immigration policy can have on people. But a growing body of evidence details that the stress of these policies severely affects the well-being of Hispanics, and this is not just limited to immigrants at risk of being deported. Immigrants living here legally and even Latinos born in the United States experience high levels of stress due to strict policy environments — and that comes with tangible effects.

One study from last month illustrates this well: Researchers from the University of Michigan School of Public Health studied the public-health impact of one of the largest federal immigration raids in U.S. history. In 2008, about 900 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers stormed the Agriprocessors meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa — complete with military-grade weapons and vehicles. The raid resulted in the detention of 389 plant workers — most of whom came to the United States from Guatemala or Mexico — and disrupted the lives of thousands of Hispanic families in Postville and throughout Iowa.

The result was a spike in Hispanic babies born with low birth weight — which has long been associated with stress in mothers — in the 37 weeks following the raid, according to data of more than 52,000 births to Latina and non-Latina white mothers in Iowa. Birth weight among babies born to white women in the state, however, remained relatively stable.

Low birth weight in infants can cause a slew of health issues, including breathing problems, bleeding in the brain and complications in the heart and intestines. These babies are also more likely to suffer from diabetes, heart disease and obesity — among other diseases — later in life.

The authors of the study argue that traumatic experiences such as massive raids put a massive toll on the health of the entire Hispanic community. These people become worried about their safety and the safety of loved ones who are at risk of being deported. They are also less likely to trust law enforcement and also become more hesitant to seek health care.

How to embrace nationalism responsibly

“It keeps you at a high-stress hormone level,” said Arline Geronimus, a co-author of the birth-weight study and a public-health researcher at the University of Michigan. “That causes wear and tear on a host of body systems, including the cardiovascular system [and the immune system].”

And who could blame immigrants for being stressed? Imagine how you would feel if there was a possibility of the government going after you or your family to force you out of the country. Now imagine hearing the possibility of 100,000 armed members of the military being used for that purpose.

“[These stress effects] harm fetuses directly — but that’s just one very direct effect that we could measure,” Geronimus said, noting that the true health impact of immigration raids is likely far larger than what her study captures. “We should care about this in terms of compassion. We should care about this in terms of health care costs.”

There’s little justification not to deport immigrants who committed violent crimes or who pose a threat to society. And just about everyone agrees that we need immigration reform to control who comes into our country. But once people are here — regardless of their status — the mark of a decent and humane immigration policy should be measured by how well we take care of immigrants. The health impact of enforcement should be taken to heart by the Trump administration.

Read more:

What’s really pushing politics to the right? Immigration.

How to embrace nationalism responsibly

Rethinking the war on terrorism, with the help of science