ASU researchers study how immigration policy impacts child development

By

Alisa Reznick

Knowing someone who has been deported could make children more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with or screened for a developmental disorder, according to the findings of an interdisciplinary team at Arizona State University. 

The study, published earlier this year by researchers Edward Vargas and Viridiana Benitez, adds to a growing body of work using data from the 2015 Latino National Health and Immigration Survey. The questionnaire was created by Vargas and fellow researchers at the University of New Mexico and polled 1,500 Latinos on their experiences with U.S. health care policy, immigration and racial issues. 

Vargas is an assistant professor at the The College of Liberal Arts and SciencesSchool of Transborder Studies whose research focuses on how immigration and health policy impacts communities. Benitez is an assistant professor in The College’s Department of Psychology who specializes in cognitive development with a focus on language. Their collaboration looked at some 550 survey respondents who were identified as parents with children still living at home.

While other research has examined the way deportation affects mental health, Vargas and Benitez said less work has been done to understand developmental impacts. Their project focused specifically on that facet by analyzing responses from parents about whether their children had been assessed for a concentration issue or formally diagnosed with a developmental disorder like autism, language impairment or ADHD. They compared that data with the set reflecting families who knew a deportee.

“As you might expect, children who are undocumented or have connections to individuals who have been deported or who are undocumented have been found to be more likely to exhibit symptoms of anxiety and depression in other studies,” Benitez said. “Our study was about trying to get people behind the idea that there’s more happening with children associated with deportation and that other aspects of development might be impacted.”

Viridiana Benitez, an assistant professor in The College's Department of Psychology, researches child cognitive development with a focus on language learning.

Viridiana Benitez, an assistant professor in The College's Department of Psychology, researches child cognitive development with a focus on language learning. Photo by Robert Ewing

They answered a few questions about how interdisciplinarity can push research forward, what the study means for communities now and where their work is headed next.

Question: Why did you focus on this aspect of immigration policy and development? 

Viridiana Benitez: This issue is personal for me as a Latina whose parents are immigrants. As a researcher, I am interested in the factors that impact cognitive and language development. Given my personal experiences and research background, I have been following the literature looking at the impact of immigration on child development.  Existing research shows us there are social and emotional impacts to deportation, but less research has looked at cognitive and language development, which are very important for school success. One interest here was in thinking about whether the effects of deportation also spill over to have consequences for these other areas of development. Our combined disciplines allowed us to find those connections. That’s how we can add to the literature. 

Edward Vargas: The idea of there being a link between developmental issues and immigration policies is actually very understudied in Latino communities. My expertise is in policy, and other data I have studied from this survey shows how immigration impacts adult mental and physical health. We know those effects are different in children. Working with Viridiana to look specifically at developmental issues, we were able to really examine those differences more closely.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you in your findings? 

VB: Many of the children found to be affected were born in the U.S. This finding is consistent with other literature on the subject. Other studies with smaller sample groups than ours showed that children who are U.S. citizens and who might even have parents who are permanent residents also reported being afraid their parents would be sent away. That was quite striking to me, because it highlights the fact that this is not just a problem for immigrants, but for a wider population of Latinos and connected communities.

EV: I think what surprised us most was definitely that these impacts are so present among U.S.-born children. There isn't much work that centers Latinos in the conversation about health and criminal justice, particularly Latino children. But they’re one of the largest populations in the country. So while we’ve focused a lot of attention on immigrant families, this finding shows us that policies are also affecting children who are not presumed to be in danger of deportation. 

Q: What is the next step to this work? Can the study be expanded? 

VB: This study showed there is a link between parents with connections to undocumented individuals or deportees, and their report of a developmental impairment in their child. We also saw the number of reported developmental issues go up with the closeness of the deportee. We can't say that knowing someone who is undocumented or has been deported definitively causes these developmental impairments in children. But we have identified a link. I think next we need to develop a deeper understanding of exactly what facets of development are impacted and how. 

EV: One of the next steps to this is looking at teachers and the role they play in telling parents to get their child screened. We know there are children who are not being screened for a mental health or development issue and instead just assumed to be having behavioral issues. Our new area of study will look at how teachers deal with children who are known to have had encounters with immigration policy and deportation.

Q: How can your findings be useful beyond academia and why are these links important to understand? 

VB: These early childhood experiences are so foundational for things like academic success and a successful adulthood. I hope this research signals to policymakers and others thinking about immigration that we really need to have tough conversations and find solutions, because these are consequences that will likely persist for years. We should also consider the fact that it is often U.S.-born children being impacted — their trajectories will play a direct role in the future of this country.

EV: We're in a really crucial time where we’re seeing attacks on immigrants and particularly economic or political refugees — not just in the U.S. but around the world. This research can be used in the court system as a tool to keep families together. It can be used to show that knowing a deportee and having a family that's of mixed-immigration status is detrimental to U.S. children's health and in turn damaging to the future of our country. I think being at ASU puts us strategically in a place where our science has an impact on people's lives, and we saw this crossdisciplinary collaboration as being one way to do that.