Family Unity, Family Health: An Inquiry on Federal Immigration Policy (Case Story)

June 2013

An examination of a continued policy of immigrant detentions and deportations at the federal level.

How Immigration Reform Can Mean Better Health: A Case Story

The problem

More than 4.5 million children who are U.S. citizens by birth have one or more parents who are undocumented. These parents and children live with anxiety about the future, fearful that detention or deportation will tear their families apart. Deportation of a parent also profoundly affects poverty, hunger, and other fundamental determinants of child health. The nation’s current immigration policy persistently threatens the health of these children and their families.

Two years ago, Immigration [officials] came to look for someone in our house; someone who did not live [there]…it was very difficult impact that it caused for my children…my youngest son’s performance in school suffered…[he became] fearful of everything, when somebody knocked on the door he would react in a very angry, nervous manner… he became constantly nervous, angry, he couldn’t fall asleep, irritated…The manner in which Immigration came to my house was very unpleasant. They were using very strong language…One day [the children] will have to forget it, but I think that a lot of time will have to go by…

– Isabella, an undocumented mother of three

What we did

In 2013, as the national debate over immigration reform heated up, HIP partnered with experts and advocates nationwide to assess the public health impacts of current immigration policy. Our study looked at how reform that prioritizes keeping families together will benefit the health and well-being of children living in mixed-status families.

What we found

If deportations continue at 2012 levels, in a single year, tens of thousands of U.S.-citizen children will suffer from poorer health, more behavioral problems, diminished educational achievement, increased poverty, and food insufficiency that may lead to hunger. The adult partners of deportees will also suffer from poorer health and shorter lifespan.

[A]nybody in a uniform became a potential source of anxiety. So, if you were driving down the street and you saw a policeman on detail, you didn’t distinguish that that person wasn’t ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement], so you might not go out, or you might turn your car around and drive someplace else. . . . One thing we heard was that when ICE is in the community, people tend to . . . send out the alert. So, say you have a doctor’s appointment that day and you hear that ICE is in the neighborhood, you don’t go out to go to your doctor’s appointment. You change your daily patterns.

– Dr. Karen Hacker, a physician at Cambridge Health Alliance, and Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School describing findings from her research on issues related to the impact of immigration enforcement on mental and physical health


The study received extensive national press coverage, most notably in Spanish-language press. Reform has not yet passed, but a bill passed by the Senate contains many of the recommendations made in the HIA. Furthermore, ICE’s recent “Parental Interest Directive” aligns with our recommendations, and provides greater rights to parents during detention and deportation proceedings. Amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court have cited the findings and advocates continue to use the report in meetings with legislators and at national events. Lastly, a father who spoke in Washington DC at a briefing for the report was granted a stay of deportation after legislative staff attending the briefing advocated on his behalf.

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Go to Report Website

Human Impact Partners transforms the field of public health to center equity and builds collective power with social justice movements.

As we continue our work toward a transformative vision of health equity and racial justice, we also continue to shift and evolve our own frameworks, language, and vision — especially with respect to our Health Instead of Punishment work. Because we know that to transform public health, we must be in a continuous process of transformation ourselves. Part of that process means reflecting on past work, and acknowledging shifts in our learning and language. Learn more about the evolution of our analysis and our current framework and thinking here.

This resource is representative of an earlier stage in our journey. The research, data, and learnings here hold strong, but the report may include past frameworks, specifically regarding racial justice and the criminal legal system.

View our latest work and framing here.