Study: Threat of Deportation Leads to Psychological Distress Among Both Latino Citizens and Noncitizens

Amy Johnson and research collaborators find it’s not just undocumented immigrants who feel at risk.

Story by

Emily Collins

Changes to the social and political landscape from 2011 to 2018, with dramatic events such as DACA rule changes, new presidential leadership, immigration bills and more, have left one major threat looming—deportation.

How this threat has impacted the mental health of some undocumented Latino immigrants in the United States has been previously studied, but new research has found it’s not just undocumented immigrants who feel at risk.

Analyzing data from 2011 to 2018, Amy Johnson, assistant professor of sociology at Lehigh University, and a team of research collaborators have found an increase over time in psychological distress among Latinos, both citizens and noncitizens, in the United States.

The study, “Deportation Threat Predicts Latino U.S. Citizens and Noncitizens’ Psychological Distress, 2011-2018,” co-authored by Johnson; Christopher Levesque, assistant professor of law and society and sociology at Kenyon College; Neil A. Lewis, Jr., associate professor of communication and social behavior at Cornell University; and Asad L. Asad, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Looking at Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), for example, the researchers found that when President Obama announced temporary reprieve from deportation for some undocumented immigrants, it relieved distress for naturalized citizens.

This same pattern occurred following the announcement of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA).

Oppositely, the dramatic societal event of Trump’s election to the presidency triggered anxiety and depressive symptoms among Latino noncitizens, worsening well-being.

While there are direct impacts of changes to the federal administration and its policies, it’s not just presidential elections that matter, according to the research.

Beyond the federal level, the researchers found that day-to-day environments about immigration and immigration enforcement also impact psychological distress—for example, ICE’s (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) detainer requests to local police, or even conversations online.

“How people are talking about immigration and how salient immigration and deportation are to day-to-day life is equally as important to distress as these more dramatic changes and events, like the Trump election or DACA,” Johnson explains.

It’s important to note that U.S.-born Latinos are not susceptible to deportation, but these events still impact their psychological health as well. Using Google Trends, the researchers show that U.S.-born Latinos experienced higher distress in periods where there are spikes in Google searches to topics related to deportation and immigration.

Latinos across all citizenship statuses are responding to this feeling of deportation threat in a negative way, the researchers found. But the exact pathway through which that happens depends on citizenship status.

“The fact that racial and ethnic divisions are so prominent that even citizens feel the threat of deportation, and distress related to deportation threat, is really striking,” says Johnson.

Although the impact of the deportation threat could increase during the highly polarizing 2024 election year, it’s not just federal policy to consider as a solution, the researchers emphasize. Creating a sense of cultural belonging is essential as well.

“We concretely show that the deportation-focused approach to immigration that the U.S. has been taking is psychologically damaging even to U.S. citizens,” says Johnson. “Moving forward, we can make the argument for policy change around deportation, but equally so, we can advocate for cultural practices of inclusion and belonging.”

Story by

Emily Collins

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