Young undocumented Latinos who gain legal status, even on a temporary basis, experience significant positive effects on their psychological well-being, according to a new study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.
UC Merced professor Whitney Pirtle and UC Davis professor Caitlin Patler examined the health impacts of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows eligible undocumented youth to apply for temporary lawful status that includes work authorization and a reprieve from deportation.
Even the temporary legal “safety” of that transition reduces distress and negative emotions, demonstrating a link between structural racism — which manifests in laws and policies — and health.
“Undocumented people live with constant worry and fear,” Pirtle said. “One of the most telling quotes from survey respondents who had gained DACA status was that DACA allowed her ‘peace. [I can] breathe better. Hope. And knowing I exist. I feel like I belong and other people know I exist.’
“Many of the young people involved in the survey reported improvements within a year of obtaining DACA. They were able to get drivers licenses, jobs, education and health care, and fulfill other basic needs that relieved some of the distress and negative emotions they commonly experience.”
Pirtle, whose research examines health outcomes in marginalized populations, said that although DACA status improved several outcomes related to psychological well-being, it did not lessen young people’s worry about other family members being deported.
“DACA is an individualized program, and its benefits don’t extend to family members,” Patler said. “Much of existing U.S. immigration policy is based on family unity and reunification; our research demonstrates how valuable it would be for family members to also have access to legal status — and ideally a permanent status that includes a path to citizenship.”
DACA was introduced in June 2012, and the first applications were accepted in August of that year. Between August 2012 and March 2015, more than 1.1 million applications for initial DACA status or DACA renewal were filed, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Patler said approval rates are near 90 percent.
But even applying for legal status can cause distress, Pirtle pointed out.
“A lot of people take risks in applying for legal status, because now their name is out there,” she said. “What if they are turned down? What if they’ve now put their families in jeopardy?”
The paper is based on surveys and follow-up interviews Patler conducted throughout 2014 and 2015, and does not take into account the current political climate. But, Pirtle said, the consistency of the findings is strong evidence that DACA should be preserved because structural changes have positive effects.
“Exclusionary immigration policies, as a form of structural racism, have led to a sizeable undocumented population that is largely barred from access to resources in the United States,” the researchers wrote. There have been few studies on how those policies affect people psychologically, but “our results demonstrate, for the first time, the positive emotional consequences of transitioning out of undocumented status for immigrant young adults.”
Pirtle said that besides the psychological consequences, structural racism can result in situations like racial or ethnic residential segregation, and have negative effects on physical health, as people end up living in areas with little access to health care and healthy food. Even temporary status that allows people to legally drive improves mobility and access to better care and nutrition.
Pirtle is part of the sociology group in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, which focuses on racial, gender, political, legal, social and health inequalities, and part of the Health Sciences Research Institute’s group that researches health disparities. The group has gained national recognition for its expertise in addressing issues that are nationally timely and have special significance for California, the Central Valley and the UC Merced community.
She and Patler, who studies immigration and inequality, met through an immigration conference at UC Merced sponsored by some of Pirtle’s colleagues, and then forged their collaboration through the Creative Connections Writing Retreat in Yosemite, also hosted by UC Merced sociologists.
The authors hope their work will speak to debates about the effects of policy on helping build healthier communities. Pirtle said it will be important to understand the long-term effects of structural changes in immigration policy.
“When people are healthier, it’s better for society in general,” the researchers agreed.