How Discriminatory Immigration Policy Affects The Unborn

Harsh immigration policies can have a negative health effect on immigrants -- and even citizens who share their ethnicity.
Even being part of an ethnic group that is targeted for deportation can have negative effects on your health.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Even being part of an ethnic group that is targeted for deportation can have negative effects on your health.

Federal immigration raids in the U.S. can separate families, push people into the shadows and jeopardize honest livelihoods.

But it turns out that these raids also have a significant and measurable health effect, not just on immigrants who may fear deportation, but on natural-born citizens of the U.S. who happen to share the same ethnicity as the people being targeted for deportation.

In a simple and stark experiment, scientists measured the birth weights of Iowa babies both before and after the Postville, Iowa, meatpacking plant raid of 2008, and found that Latino babies born after the raid had a 24 percent higher risk of low birth weight compared to babies born at the same time before the raid year. This held true even if the babies were born to women who were U.S. citizens.

The analysis showed no change among white babies’ birth weights in the 37 weeks after the raid.

Low birth weight is associated with a host of poor health outcomes in infancy, including respiratory problems, brain bleeds and heart problems. Low birth weight is also linked to a higher risk of chronic health conditions later on in life, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity.

The low birth weight effects were true across all Latina women in Iowa, whether or not they were born in this country, and whether or not they were undocumented. Migrants could include naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, migrants with visas or the undocumented ― the data showed all were at risk of giving birth to babies with low birth weight in the months after the Postville raid.

The findings suggest that simply being part of an ethnic group that is most targeted by stressful immigration policy ― not just being an immigrant ― can have serious negative consequences for one’s pregnancy.

The findings have renewed significance after Trump’s immigration executive order

These findings were released just as the country grapples with President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, which temporarily suspended all refugee resettlement, banned all Syrian refugees indefinitely, and banned individuals from seven majority-Muslim countries from coming to the U.S. for at least 90 days. The ban went into effect immediately, so immigrants who were already at their destination airport or in the air, and who had visas or even green cards, were detained for hours or deported. Travelers were also stopped from boarding U.S.-bound planes.

Nicole Novak, lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Michigan Population Studies Center, said she’s “almost positive” that another social scientist is already putting together a research proposal to study the long-term health effects that Trump’s sudden ban on migrants may have on unborn babies who are part of the policy’s targeted demographic group.

“It’s a different time and affects some different communities than the Postville raid, but as far as a major event that involves stereotypes, and a lot of fear and distress for a particular racial, ethnic or religious group, I think there’s a lot of similarities,” Novak said.

Studies of raids are the most insightful on immigration

Scientists have long been interested in studying the ways that immigration policy can affect health, but these laws are typically announced months before they are enacted. This makes it difficult for scientists to pinpoint health changes in the face of diffuse and ongoing immigration policy.

But the Postville raid, which netted 390 undocumented immigrants and at the time was the largest raid on a single workplace, struck suddenly and without warning. The federal action provided the perfect conditions for stark before-and-after scenarios that Novak could compare. She and her colleagues took birth data on every child born in Iowa from 2006 to 2010 and then compared the babies who were born 37 weeks after the raid to babies born exactly one or two years earlier.

She found that babies born to Latina moms, no matter their migration status, had a 24 percent higher risk of low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds) compared to babies born one and two years before the raid. The increases in low birthweight were highest among full-term pregnancies and in women with less education than average, which could mean that moms with low levels of education had less resources to cope with the financial and psychological impact of the raid.

She also found that babies born to Latina moms were 11 percent more likely to be born “moderate pre-term,” which means they were born early, between 32 to 36 weeks of pregnancy. The early term pregnancies may in part explain lower birth weights, as babies born earlier weigh less, Novak explained. Another medical explanation could be intrauterine growth restriction, which is when a baby doesn’t grow as it should in the womb. However, Novak did not analyze rates of IUGR in her study.

Low birth weight is an attractive measurement for scientists to analyze because these records are well-kept and more accurate than gestational age, as some women aren’t sure of their last monthly period before their pregnancy. And because of its link to maternal stress, it is also a proxy for the psychological and social pressures that mothers may experience throughout their pregnancy. For instance, past research has found that Californian women who were perceived to be Arab had a 34 percent higher risk of giving birth to a baby with low birth weight in the six months after the 9/11 attacks, perhaps due to discrimination or the fear of discrimination, compared to a similar group of women giving birth one year earlier. The stress could also be economic; a 2015 study found that mass layoffs and plant closings led to a decrease in average birth weight in the county where the business was located in the months immediately after the job losses.

Indeed, Novak wrote that after the raid, “Latino Iowans likened the experience to a flood or earthquake, reflecting the profound impact of this stressor on their lives and on their health.”

In the case of the Latino births after the Postville raid, a mix of fear about ethnic discrimination, as well as the threat of economic loss, could be linked to low birth weight among the entire ethnic group in Iowa because of the frequent conflation between being Latino and being an undocumented immigrant, Novak explained.

“Exclusive immigration policies and their militarized enforcement exacerbate the racialized exclusion of Latinos in the USA, which may contribute to a cumulative health burden for immigrant and USA-born Latinos alike,” Novak concluded in her study.

Being part of a discriminated minority has measurably harmful effects on health

While the Postville raid was carried out by George W. Bush’s administration, the next administration under Barack Obama continued to enforce deportation policy aggressively, earning him the moniker of deporter-in-chief from the National Council on La Raza, a Latino advocacy group. Obama enacted policies to prevent about 800,000 “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, from being deported, but he also deported the largest number of undocumented immigrants compared to any other U.S. president.

What Novak’s study suggests, then, is that these more diffuse, ongoing deportation policies, while less dramatic than the Postville raid, can have harmful effects not just on the migrants who are deported or their immediate families, but on the people who identify ethnically with the deported.

“In a lot of ways, this raid is very similar to the low-level, pervasive impacts of daily immigration enforcement that takes place all the time, and looks like will continue to take place,” Novak said. “We think that our study can lend some insight into the ways those policies affect individual and communities’ health and wellbeing.

Novak’s study is just one in an emerging body of research that suggests being part of a discriminated minority may be hazardous to one’s health. Last December, public health researchers from the University of Georgia found that black, disadvantaged teens who had “unrelenting determination to succeed” had a higher risk of diabetes, reports the New York Times. In 2015, Northwestern researchers found that kids, and especially black kids, who experienced higher levels of discrimination grew up to develop disrupted stress hormone levels, reports Mother Jones.

Novak’s study was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

This reporting is brought to you by HuffPost’s health and science platform, The Scope. Like us on Facebook and Twitter and tell us your story:

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