Researchers examined data on people who identified as Hispanic or Latino in nationally-representative behavioral health surveys administered from 2014 to 2018. Overall, more than one third of these participants reported at least one day of poor mental health in the previous month, and about 11% reported frequent mental distress.
During the study period, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made 440,601 arrests, the study team notes in the American Journal of Public Health. Arrests increased sharply after a series of anti-immigration executive orders in 2017 that authorized a border wall with Mexico, banned U.S. entry for people from several predominantly Muslim countries, and modified ICE policies around arrests and deportation.
Changes in arrest rates varied by state. But each 1-percentage point increase in a state’s immigration arrest rate following these immigration policy changes was associated with significantly worse mental health outcomes for Hispanic people in the study.
“Given that immigration policy continues to be a deeply contested topic, ensuring that the health and social consequences of aggressive enforcement are identified and acknowledged within national debates is a key priority,” study authors Emilie Bruzelius of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City and Aaron Baum of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City write.
ICE has arrested more than 2 million immigrants living without authorization in the U.S. since 2008, the researchers note. Some previous research suggests that immigration-related anxiety could have a detrimental impact on mental health, particularly among racial/ethnic groups that have been disproportionately targeted for arrest and deportation.
Under current immigration policies, it’s possible that immigration arrests could lead to poor mental health by increasing deportation fears among undocumented individuals and their families and neighbors, the study authors write. People from populations targeted by these immigration policies might also experience more discrimination, which worsens mental health.
Across the entire study period, participants reported an average of 3.62 days of poor mental health during the previous month.
When researchers looked only at the 2017 shift in immigration policies, they didn’t find these policies to be associated with changes in mental health.
But when they looked at both the 2017 policy shifts and changes in arrest rates, they found states that had bigger spikes in arrest rates also had larger increases in the number of poor mental health days. These states also had bigger increases in the proportion of people reporting any days of poor mental health or frequent mental distress.
Compared to the period before the immigration policy shifts, a 1-percentage point increase in arrest rates after a policy shift was associated with a 14% higher risk of frequent mental distress and an 11% higher risk of any indications of poor mental health.
The study can’t prove that policy changes or arrest rates might directly impact mental health. Another limitation is that researchers lacked data on whether individual participants had experienced discrimination or were aware of immigration arrests or impacted personally by the policy changes.
The researchers also couldn’t account for any connection between changes in state-level immigration arrests and the proportion of undocumented residents.
“Additional research and, more important, public health action are urgently needed to mitigate the damaging effects of intensified anti-immigration enforcement measures and restrictive immigration policies on health,” the researchers conclude.