UW study: Anti-immigrant political discourse can hurt immigrant health

Supporters hold “Make America Great Again” signs at a rally in Lynden, WA, for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on May 7, 2016. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo.)

Anti-immigrant political rhetoric and cultural division can raise stress and lead to health problems for U.S. immigrants, a University of Washington professor found in a new study.

“People focus so much on policies, like the border wall or the DREAM Act,” said Jane Lee, an assistant professor of social work, in a press release. “But it’s not just whether these policies pass; it’s the overall discourse. This is a vulnerable and marginalized population, and that climate creates fear and uncertainty, which have impacts on people’s health.”

For the study, which was published in the Journal of Social Policy in March, Lee interviewed nearly 40 Latinx immigrants and a group of people who work closely with immigrants in Queens, New York. The majority of the respondents were from Mexico, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic; two-thirds were female, with the age averaging at 39 years old.

Responses to questions, which were centered around immigration, were put into three general categories: lack of information, unpredictable circumstances and discrimination toward immigration.

Lee found that her participants widely reported that they felt as though there was a wide-ranging anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, and that the 2016 presidential election had exacerbated it.

According to Lee, this sense of antipathy, combined with the general confusion surrounding proposed immigration policies, can give rise to health problems. In addition to reactions like hopelessness and fear, the confusion can lead to decisions negatively affecting health. For instance, immigrants might choose not to engage in important health-related tasks like going to see a doctor, or participate in destructive activities like substance use and unprotected sex.

“When you’re scared, when you feel the world is so anti-you, you might not go to see a doctor, you might not engage in preventive behaviors,” Lee said in the press release.

Lee’s study follows in the footsteps of other research that has looked at the connection between sociopolitical contexts and the health of immigrants and their families.

A 2018 study published in the Social Policy Report found that “for some children, the stigma associated with being from an immigrant family, experiences with discrimination and increased consciousness of legal status is marked by fear, hyperawareness and hypervigilance.”

In another study, Laura Wray-Lake, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor who has studied how immigration policies under the Trump administration impact the lives of Latinx teens, found that deportations and family separations at the border are hugely distressing both for teenagers who have experienced them first-hand, and to those teenagers who have no direct experience with them.

“We know that deportations and family separations at the border are incredibly disruptive and traumatic to youth and their families,” Wray-Lake told The Huffington Post last year. “The detrimental impacts of family separations on child development and family systems are serious and long-lasting. What we’re also coming to understand is that even for youth and families who are not directly threatened by these deportation or family separation policies, the policy climate is creating a more hostile and unsafe environment.”

Lee at the University of Washington concluded that policies should take into account the experiences and perceptions of immigrants.

“We propose an integrated, multi-level framework to guide future research and practice regarding social determinants of immigrant health,” Lee and the study’s co-author, Yuanjin Zhou, state in the study’s abstract.

Currently, Lee is working on an additional study in Washington state, which is focused on peer-delivered intervention for HIV prevention. Through this study, Lee also found that, because certain immigrant groups often avoid going to brick-and-mortar clinics, bringing services to them could be effective.

Lee hopes that her research can inform future studies that are able to work with bigger and more geographically varied groups of immigrants.

“While policy changes are critical for resource allocation and opportunity creation for immigrants in the United States, we cannot simply wait for changes to happen,” Lee said in a press release. “Health disparities among immigrants constitute urgent social work and public health issues.”

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