U.S.-Born Children of Undocumented Parents Report Anxiety and Depression Symptoms

AUSTIN, Texas U.S.-born children of undocumented parents experience elevated levels of anxiety, and if their parents were detained or deported, those children are more likely to report depressive symptoms, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

The study was led by Luis H. Zayas, dean of UT Austin's School of Social Work, and published online in the January issue of Journal of Child and Family Studies. It compares the psychosocial status of three groups of U.S. citizen children: a group living in Mexico with deported parents, a group living in the United States with parents who have been detained or deported, and a comparison group of children also living in the United States with undocumented parents who have not been detained or deported.

Children in all three groups reported high levels of anxiety. Children whose parents had been detained or deported were more likely to report higher levels of depressive symptoms and emotional problems such as negative mood, physical symptoms and negative self-esteem. They also reported lower levels of freedom from anxiety and lower levels of happiness and satisfaction than their counterparts who were not directly affected by parental detention or deportation.

"In the current debate about immigration reform, we need to give more consideration to the impact of policies on the well-being of our young citizens. Our study shows that aggressive immigration enforcement has unintended consequences on the mental health of children, the most vulnerable members of our society and the future of our country," Zayas said.

The study was co-authored by Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola of the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at the University of California, Davis; Hyunwoo Yoon of UT Austin's School of Social Work; and Guillermina Natera Rey of the Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatría in Mexico City.

"This is a timely and much-needed study that interfaces health, law and immigration," Aguilar-Gaxiola said. "We know that childhood adversity such as family separation and parental loss is one of the strongest predictors for early-onset mental disorders, and this can be catastrophic for children in critical stages of their development."

The peer-reviewed study recruited 83 children between 8 and 15 years of age in the Sacramento, California, and Austin, Texas, metropolitan areas and in several states in Mexico such as Oaxaca, Sinaloa and Hidalgo. Children answered standardized questionnaires that addressed key psychosocial issues including depression, anxiety, trauma and self-worth.