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Can cities protect undocumented families from the rising threat of toxic stress in Trump’s America?

Can cities protect undocumented families from the rising threat of toxic stress in Trump’s America?

Picture of Dara Lind
[Photo by Kevin Beaty via Flickr.]

"You should be uncomfortable. You should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried."

That's the message that the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has delivered, on more than one occasion, to America's unauthorized immigrants. 

They didn't need to be told. 

President Donald Trump's belligerent rhetoric and the new administration's policy message that anyone here without papers can be arrested and slotted for deportation had already spoken loudly enough.

Many immigrants are afraid to leave their homes for work or school. Paranoia about immigration checkpoints has rendered the very idea of going out in public scary. Friendly institutions —churches, schools, courtrooms — are often avoided as potential deportation traps.

It’s in the immediate aftermath of raids that the poisonous effects of fear on immigrant lives tend to be covered. But the fear of deportation isn’t a single episode of trauma; it’s an ongoing threat.

For children — who may themselves be U.S. citizens but whose parents (and, for the first time in U.S. history, even grandparents) are at risk of deportation — it's a petri dish for what psychologists call "toxic stress," the long-term toll that constant uncertainty and a lack of secure attachments takes on development. What's happening to them right now might end up compromising their health and achievement — and, by extension, the health of American society — for decades.

We’re only just beginning to understand the ways that legal status, or the lack thereof, shapes immigrants’ inner lives and well-being, and how that in turn shapes their life outcomes.

Having an unauthorized-immigrant parent is associated with worse behavioral outcomes for children as early as preschool; all other factors equal, it’s correlated with 1.25 to 1.5 fewer years of educational attainment. 

In the wake of the massive immigration raid in Postville, Iowa, in 2008, babies born to Latina women across the state of Iowa suddenly became much more likely to suffer from low birth weight. The climate of fear created by the Trump administration is a constant low-grade Postville.

Under Trump, local governments have often been unauthorized immigrants' most vocal allies. But they can't prevent people from being deported, or from fearing deportation. Their best shot is to try to provide so much support for these children that they are able to prevent elevated levels of stress from reaching toxic levels.

So for my 2017 National Fellowship project, I'm trying to figure out if that's possible.

This fall, I'll be reporting from a community that's working as hard as any to protect its residents from the Trump administration. I'll be looking at immigrant families throughout the life cycle, observing how they're going about their daily lives under the cloud of deportation. And I'll be trying to discover whether any city can be a sanctuary from toxic stress.

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