Kids with undocumented parents prone to anxiety, study shows

An undocumented immigrant has a baby.

If she’s eligible for protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the chances her child will have mental health issues are cut by half.

That’s the conclusion of a Stanford University study released Thursday, which examined the use of mental health services of children born in the United States to undocumented immigrant parents. Even though the children studied were natural-born citizens themselves, having an undocumented parent made it more likely they would eventually be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

“The results show pretty clearly that as we come down on this debate of whether DACA should be … continued, you need to look at the broader consequences on these families,” Jens Hainmueller, a political science professor at Stanford who led the study team, said in reference to reports that President Donald Trump is considering rescinding DACA.

“It has very powerful multiplier effects on the next generation,” he said.

About one-quarter of the estimated 787,000 DACA participants nationwide have citizen children, according to a University of California, San Diego, survey published Monday. The National Immigration Law Center, the Center for American Progress and liberal immigration advocate, United We Dream, participated in the survey.

About 13,000 DACA participants reside in Nevada. Meanwhile, it’s estimated the state is home to nearly 130,000 undocumented immigrants.

DACA participants, who were brought to the U.S. as children, are technically undocumented, though the policy enacted by former President Barack Obama granted them access to a Social Security number and work permit, along with deferred deportation.

More secure households

Hainmueller speculates that kids of DACA parents are likely living in more secure households, where their parents have stable work or make a higher income.

The potential consequences of mental health issues in the long term are severe, he noted. Previous research draws a correlation between early childhood stress to depression, substance abuse, heart disease and obesity in adulthood.

Chris Kearney, chair of the UNLV psychology department and an expert in child psychology, agreed that it is important to reduce stress for kids, who feed off their parents’ behaviors, especially when they’re not sure how to react to a situation.

“If they look and their parents, and their parents are distressed, then a lot of times, they model that reaction,” Kearney said, adding that fear of separation is common among mixed-status families.

Immigrant advocates are huddling to determine a course of action if Trump ends DACA.

“It’s more a question of what exactly is going to happen with the DACA participants that are parents, what is the likelihood of them getting deported,” said Maggie Salas-Crespo, communications coordinator for the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, a Nevada nonprofit that advocates access to health and education for kids. The organization is working with the Nevada Immigrant Coalition to discuss the potential effects of DACA’s termination.

Terry Ochal, deputy director of the Clark County Republican Party, said he sympathizes with DACA participants, but says allowing them to stay in the U.S. penalizes those who are attempting to legally immigrate.

“There’s a lot of people trying to immigrate to this country, and I feel bad for them, because they’re going through a process that takes five, 10 years,” he said earlier this month, adding that there might be a mechanism for giving legal status to DACA participants using merit-based criteria.

Among those closely watching the impending decision on DACA is Cheska Perez, 19, who grew up in Las Vegas after being brought to the U.S. from the Philippines by her parents when she was 6.

Although Perez enrolled in DACA, two of her siblings and her parents are undocumented.

She said she has experienced the anxieties that come with living in a mixed-status family.

“In general, I believe being undocumented has a lot of psychological stress,” she said, adding that as a child, she was told to keep her status a secret. “When you’re hiding all the time, you’re really containing the emotions you’re feeling.”

Contact Jessie Bekker at or 702-380-4563. Follow @jessiebekks on Twitter.

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