The current increase in immigration raids in communities across the country is having a devastating impact on public health – one that could get even worse if there were an outbreak in Zika or other highly contagious illness. The White House’s current immigration policy is causing fear to spread in immigrant communities and studies show these policies are causing toxic stress among children and leading undocumented immigrants to delay seeking medical care.
There are an estimated 11 million people living in the United States without legal documents. The White House has vowed to crack down on undocumented immigrants and has conducted unprecedented sweeps, rounding up and deporting people, regardless of whether they have criminal records. The White House is now considering using up to 100,000 National Guard troops to round up even more undocumented immigrants.
Some of those who have been rounded up include young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children and who had received deferred status under President Obama. Others are parents with pending asylum cases based on claims of violence in their home countries. Still others are people who have never missed an appointment with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who are working on their immigration statuses – several of whom have been arrested when they arrived for their scheduled appointments. Only a small percentage of those who have been deported this year had violent criminal records.
ICE raids spread fear like wildfire. In recent months, immigrant communities have been on high alert with rumors spreading about raids on subways, in schools, on city buses. In early May, immigration agents appeared at a New York City elementary school inquiring about an enrolled child. Many parents have stopped dropping their children off at school out of fear that they will be detained on their way home.
A pediatrician in North Carolina told The Atlantic magazine that she had treated young patients who were suffering from panic attacks, headaches, and other stress-related symptoms since the White House began its crackdown. Children come to school crying and asking whether their parents will be deported. The pediatrician determined that these kids were suffering from toxic stress due to current immigration policies. Toxic stress has been found to cause myriad health problems and interfere with childhood development by flooding the body with inflammatory chemicals that interfere with the cardiovascular system and the metabolism.
More adverse childhood experiences are linked to higher chances of permanent disability, chronic illness like diabetes and hypertension, mood disorders, and early death. Further, toxic stress can impair academic performance and brain processing.
Studies show that this toxic stress is not limited to undocumented immigrants. Rather it impacts all Latinos, even citizens. Raids create fear and stress in entire communities that worry for the safety of their loved ones.
A recent University of Michigan study showed that ICE raids have a devastating impact on the health of Latino immigrants – even those who are not at risk of deportation. A 2008 raid at an Iowa factory conducted by 900 ICE officers armed with military-grade weapons and a black hawk helicopter resulted in the detention of nearly 400 workers. News of the raid spread rapidly throughout immigrant communities in Iowa. According to the study, in the 37 weeks following the raid there was a spike in Hispanic babies born with low birth weight – an outcome associated with stress in mothers. Birth weights in babies born to white mothers remained stable.
Fear keeps them from care
According to the National Institutes of Health, raids also decrease the likelihood that immigrants will seek medical care – again, whether they have their documents or not. This result was determined by a study conducted after changes were made to immigration enforcement laws in Alabama.
According to another study, undocumented patients are more than four times more likely to delay seeking care for tuberculosis. Without treatment TB can be fatal, and as nurses we know that TB can be highly contagious when it affects the lungs and becomes airborne.
Many avoid going to the hospital for any reason for fear that they will be deported or asked about immigration status upon arrival.
Public health risks skyrocket
Imagine an outbreak of Zika virus or other communicable disease with a large swath of those affected going untreated because they are too scared to go to the hospital. We need to ensure that people feel safe enough to seek the care they need to stop the spread of illnesses that could spread like wildfire if left untreated. We also need to make sure that children can feel safe in their schools and in their homes.
The vast majority of those impacted by current immigration policies work hard and pay taxes – and many of them are children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ actions. As nurses, it is our duty to support humane immigration policies that don’t put the public health of our nation at risk or make children sick.