Early this year, the new executive branch took a marked shift in its approach toward immigration. Instead of targeting only high-risk or law-breaking individuals for deportation, Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions directed his agency in April to prosecute anybody crossing the border illegally. Soon thereafter, even the unofficial policy of the Department of Homeland Security not to pursue undocumented immigrants in “sensitive places” like churches or hospitals seemed to be breaking down. There were reports of a couple being turned in to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by a nurse at the hospital as they sought treatment for their infant son. Then, Rosa Maria Hernandez – a 10-year-old with cerebral palsy – was stopped at a border check on her way to the hospital in an ambulance, after which she was sent to a detention center away from her parents and against the doctor’s orders. Only after a lawsuit was filed on her behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was Rosa Maria finally released on November 4th (that joyful reunion here).
It should be no surprise that many of our country’s immigrants have taken note of the shift; more than ever, people are avoiding public areas, the police, and any activity that might draw unwanted attention from ICE. This fear of deportation is taking a serious toll on immigrants’ health – documented and undocumented alike – thanks to the reality of “mixed status” families; those who have papers still have much to fear for the sake of their loved ones who don’t.
In the small city of Woodburn, Oregon, where a quarter of the population is undocumented, many businesses are struggling to maintain a stable customer base in the wake of each ICE raid or scare. Martin Campos-Davis, Operations Director of the Oregon Human Development Corporation, tells the story of the “many farmworkers and their families [in his community who] took to doing their weekly grocery between 11pm and midnight. This was the hour families figured it was safest, without fear of being picked up or detained by ICE agents. Workers [reported once incident during] the now usual late-night shopping when two unmarked white vans pulled up the curb and idled. Word quickly spread throughout the store that ICE was at front and a raid was coming. People fled out the back doors with families in tow, workers reported that several full abandoned shopping carts were found throughout the store that evening. The vans out front? Those turned out to be farm labor contractors dropping their workers off so they too could do their late-night shopping.”
Soon after President Trump signed his executive order on immigration, the American Academy of Pediatricians issued a statement that said, “When children are scared, it can impact their health and development. Indeed, fear and stress, particularly prolonged exposure to serious (‘toxic’) stress can harm the developing brain and negatively impact short- and long-term health.” Adults are not the only ones who suffer cumulative effects from chronic daily stress. One counselor with Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans said that immigrant children were “having recurring nightmares or eating too much or too little,” and that “one child simply told me ‘My body aches.’” Vulnerable children are literally worried sick.
Anxiety tends to drive people towards other unhealthy behaviors, and away from ones that would otherwise benefit them. For example:
- People are declining certain life-saving social programs, like food stamps;
- Victims of crime, like sexual assault, are declining to report anything to the police; this hampers law-enforcement efforts, leading many police officers to come out against the new policy
- Immigrants unhappy in their current jobs are not seeking out new jobs, for fear of being turned in;
- Kids are being kept home from school more often, causing their grades to suffer and leading to reduced possibilities for their future;
- Some people are avoiding the doctor and social service centers, afraid that they will get pulled over and detained.
The end result of all of this is a myriad of negative health effects such as:
- Hormonal changes that could lead to heart problems or PTSD
- Weight change
- Insomnia or fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
These in turn can wear at the delicate fabric of immigrants’ lives, because, while stress can sometimes bond people together, too much can tear them apart. As long as the threat of deportation looms, it’s hard to imagine much relief for these families.
Even so, there is always something we can do.
Stay tuned next week for Part II in this series: what to do in the face of deportation, and how AFOP contributes to solutions.