Anti-Immigrant Political Rhetoric and Action Threaten Latinx Youth

Adolescents with a family member deported or detained in 2018 suffered significantly more mental health problems four years later, study shows.

May 13, 2024

Pro-immigration signs at a protest in Seattle, 2017 (Nitish Meena/Unsplash)

(Nitish Meena/Unsplash)

Harsh political rhetoric about immigrants and anti-immigrant actions can damage parent-child relationships in Latino families and in turn lead to a significant increase in mental health problems for the children in those families, according to a study led by researchers at the George Washington University. 

“Our research suggests that restrictive immigration policies and harsh rhetoric about immigrants can harm Latino and Latina adolescents,” said Kathleen Roche, lead author of the study and professor of prevention and community health at GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “Such harm during adolescence can lead to enduring difficulties with depression, anxiety and unhealthy behaviors into adulthood.”

The study, “U.S. Immigration Policy Stressors and Latinx Youth Mental Health: A 4-Year Prospective Study,” was published May 13 in JAMA Pediatrics. Roche’s coauthors include Elizabeth Vaquera, director of the Cisneros Hispanic Leadership Institute at GW, Rebecca White at Arizona State University and others.

Their findings suggest that the current political landscape, which includes anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions, threatens a critical segment of the United States youth population. Roche points out that one out of every four children in U.S. high schools are of Latin American origin, and children with increased stress, family conflict and mental health problems can do poorly in school and are less prepared to enter adulthood.

Roche and her colleagues studied 547 teenagers and their parents over a four-year period from 2018 to 2022. The families all lived in suburban Atlanta and more than 90 percent of the children were U.S. citizens. The researchers asked teenagers about deportations or detentions occurring in the family. They then asked mothers about impacts of anti-immigrant threats and rhetoric on their families’ fears and behaviors. The researchers then examined changes in teenagers’ reports of parental support and parent-child conflict and teenagers’ mental health symptoms.

Key findings from the study:

  • Teenagers experienced increased conflict with parents when their mothers responded to anti-immigrant news and actions by worrying about family separations, job possibilities and educational prospects and by changing behaviors such as avoiding the police and medical care out of fears of deportation.
  • These arguments and disagreements between teenagers and their parents were related to youth in the study developing increased problems with aggressive, impulsive and delinquent kinds of behaviors.
  • When family members were deported or detained, the quality of the parent-child relationship suffered. For girls, that led to an increased risk of depression, anxiety and other serious mental health issues.

The findings raise the concern that a large part of the U.S. population growing up in today’s political landscape may be exposed to harsh anti-immigration talk on the news or threatening actions such as the deportation of a family member. Such an environment may be damaging to parent-child relationships at a critical developmental moment.

The study points to the value of supporting Latinx families, providing increased support for parents and children to reduce the risk of mental health issues later on. Roche says school and healthcare professionals should be aware of the risk and step in to offer support if needed. The study authors also say Congress and lawmakers have a role to play in reducing the threats to immigrants, especially for families. The overwhelming majority of children in Latinx families are U.S. citizens.

The research was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.