Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin, the UC Davis Health System and the National Institute of Psychiatry in Mexico are studying the impact of the deportation of undocumented Mexican migrants on their U.S.-born children.
Thousands of families have to decide whether the children, who are United States citizens, will accompany their parents to Mexico or remain in the land of their birth without them.
The study will be the first of its kind to look at the effect deportation of parents has on their U.S. citizen children.
The results could inform the national immigration debate, which centers mostly on the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., 59 percent of whom are from Mexico.
Many of those undocumented immigrants have children who were born in the United States and are U.S. citizens. The number of children living in mixed-status households those with undocumented immigrant parents and U.S. citizen children grew from 2.7 million in 2003 to 4 million in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. From July 2010 to October 2012, nearly 205,000 people who said that their children were U.S. citizens were deported, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimates.
"There is little understanding of the impact that either losing their parents or losing their country has on these kids," said Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin and lead researcher on the project. "But obviously any of the options has to be wrenching mentally and psychologically."
He said the study will use well-tested clinical measures and in-depth interviews to understand the psychosocial functioning of U.S. citizen children whose lives are disrupted by parental deportation, whether they stay behind in the U.S. or follow their parents to Mexico.
"This is a timely and much-needed study that interfaces health, law and immigration," said Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, professor of clinical internal medicine and director of the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at the University of California-Davis and a collaborator on the project. "Given the scale of the numbers of U.S. citizen children being separated from their parents during the past two years, embarking on this study is of great public-health importance and will help us understand what happens to the mental health of American children after their parents' deportation."
Research by the Texas-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates on behalf of low- and middle-income families, found that a lack of clear policies and procedures to handle removal and repatriation has led to inconsistent practices and a lack of attention to child safety. The center also reported that repatriation services typically lack guidelines to prevent abuse or ensure application of child-welfare standards.
To conduct the study, the researchers are interviewing 80 children in and around Austin, Texas, and Sacramento, Calif., and in Mexico. During the interviews, the researchers will measure factors such as depression, trauma and effects on self-esteem and self-image, as well as ask more in-depth questions about the children's experiences with the deportation process.
To identify mixed-status households, the researchers are working with agencies that serve immigrant communities in Texas, California and Mexico to encourage them to participate in the research.
The effort might be challenging because families with members who are undocumented generally are reluctant to make themselves known. Zayas said that interviews will be held in strict confidence to protect the participants' identities.
"We hope that the scientific evidence our study produces will be strongly considered by those who make immigration laws and those who implement them," he said.
"We know that family separation can be catastrophic for children in critical stages of their development," Aguilar-Gaxiola said. "Childhood adversity is one of the strongest indicators for early-onset mental health disorders, as well as for the premature manifestation of chronic health conditions."
The study is funded by a two-year, $182,000 grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health. It is expected to be completed in 2014.
Other collaborators include Maria Elena Medina-Mora, director general, and Guilermina Natera Rey, director of epidemiological and psychosocial research, both of the National Institute of Psychiatry in Mexico.