MONDAY, June 24, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Hispanic teens are being driven to anxiety and sleeplessness over the Trump Administration's immigration policies, even though they are U.S.-born citizens and face no threat of deportation, a new study shows.
Nearly half of a group of 16-year-old Hispanic children in the Salinas Valley region of California reported that they worry that U.S. immigration policy could tear their families apart, researchers found.
Those teens had five times higher levels of anxiety as kids without similar worries, the study shows. They also had poorer sleep quality.
"These are U.S. citizens and these are 16-year-olds, and kids who have this kind of high level of anxiety, it's not fleeting," said lead researcher Brenda Eskenazi, director of the Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health at the University of California, Berkeley.
"It's likely to affect their ability to focus in school, stay in school, criminality, their health," Eskenazi continued. "If you're living with this level of anxiety, there are likely to be long-term consequences. It's likely to affect other aspects of their life and well-being."
Worse, this particular group of teenagers likely reflect only a hint of the ongoing fear that's simmering in other parts of the nation, Eskenazi added.
The city of Salinas is promoted as a welcoming city nestled within the sanctuary state of California, researchers noted. Three out of four people in the Salinas Valley are Hispanic, and the percentage of undocumented immigrants likely exceeds 29%.
"These kids are living in a pretty exclusive environment. We're not seeing a whole lot of ICE raids in this area. And yet, as U.S. citizens, they are experiencing effects," Eskenazi said. "We may see more of this in kids around the United States who aren't living in such a protective environment."
There are an estimated 18 million children in the United States with at least one immigrant parent -- 1 in every 4 kids, the researchers noted. Nearly 1 in 10 has at least one parent who's an undocumented immigrant.
Just last week, U.S. President Donald Trump promised raids targeting about 2,000 in 10 major cities across the country.
Trump then announced Saturday that he was delaying the raids for two weeks, to put pressure on Democratic lawmakers to accept changes that would tighten the nation's asylum laws.
Eskenazi and her colleagues are engaged in a long-term study of about 400 children born to Hispanic farmworker families in the Salinas Valley. The kids are U.S. citizens born to at least one parent from Mexico or Central America.
"We have been following them since they were in utero, at least half of these kids," Eskenazi said.
By chance, these kids underwent a health assessment at age 14, just before the 2016 presidential election, and another at age 16 in the first year after the election.
The researchers realized this would give them a unique chance to see how anti-immigration policies are affecting the children of immigrants.
About 45% of the kids in the study said they worry at least sometimes about how U.S. immigration policy would affect them personally, or whether their families would be separated due to deportation.
Two in five said they worried about being reported to the immigration office, even though they are citizens.
The teens with immigration worries had much higher anxiety levels, and those levels nearly tripled between their pre- and post-election checkups, researchers calculated.
This anxiety appears to be affecting their sleep. One in five said it takes them a long time to get to sleep, 16% said they have fairly or very bad sleep quality, and 11% said they had trouble staying awake during the day.
Stress and sleeplessness can affect teens' performance in school and increase their risks of future health problems like obesity and high blood pressure, said Dr. Elizabeth Dawson-Hahn, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. She co-authored an editorial accompanying the study, published online June 24 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
Kids dealing with anxiety also are at increased risk for substance abuse, and have poorer future job prospects, the researchers noted.
"It's not setting them up for success or a healthy life ahead to add this additional stressor to their lives," Dawson-Hahn said. "It's important to recognize that policies do have public health impacts."
These teens will likely need more help in the future. "At the very least we need to track these kids and we need to provide legal and mental health services," Eskenazi said.
Health care professionals also can help by encouraging advanced care planning amongst these families, Dawson-Hahn said.
Families should make plans to determine with whom a teen would stay if one or both parents are arrested by immigration agents, and whether the teen would leave the country if their parents are deported or stay in the United States with a trusted adult, Dawson-Hahn said.
"This is a legitimate concern. The concern youth have about their parents potentially being deported, it is real," Dawson-Hahn said. "We need to help families think through planning if they were to be deported, while acknowledging that we hope that is not the outcome for the family."
The American Psychological Association has more about teens and stress.