Immigrants Are Changing Their Routines Out of Fear, a Survey Finds

Even permanent residents and naturalized citizens report avoiding activities like driving, visiting a doctor, or talking with teachers.
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Immigration advocates with the Florida Immigrant Coalition go house to house handing out fliers on July 13th, 2019, in Little Havana in Miami, Florida, in advance of the Trump administration's nationwide immigration enforcement operation targeting migrant families.

Immigration advocates with the Florida Immigrant Coalition go house to house handing out fliers on July 13th, 2019, in Little Havana in Miami, Florida, in advance of the Trump administration's nationwide immigration enforcement operation targeting migrant families.

Two weekends ago, the threat of highly publicized Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids spread anxiety and apprehension among immigrant communities in several cities across the United States. Families reportedly didn't leave their houses, instead closing windows and turning off lights, and streets were completely empty. The fear, experts said, was the point. While the operation originally targeted around 2,000 families with deportation orders, ICE arrested a total of 35 people.

Immigration-related fear, however, extends far beyond the latest round of raids. In a climate of heightened immigration enforcement and increasingly aggressive policies, it isn't surprising that immigrants feel unsafe. Victims of domestic violence are discouraged from reporting crimes to law enforcement, and even participating in public assistance programs imposes its own set of risks—particularly for undocumented immigrants.

But a new report released on Wednesday shows just how pervasive the chilling effect of the Trump administration's immigration crackdown is, even for legal permanent residents and naturalized citizens.

According to the Urban Institute's study, which is based on surveys conducted in December of 2018 with around 2,000 non-elderly adults in immigrant families, one in six respondents reported that they or someone in their family avoided engaging in activities that could expose them to questions about citizenship status. The most-avoided activities were those that involved the risk of interaction with the police or a public authority, such as driving, renewing, or applying for a driver's license, and reporting a crime. Those surveyed also mentioned reluctance to go to the park or stores, use public transportation, or see a doctor.

Hispanic adults seemed to be more affected than non-Hispanic white adults, with almost 15 percent reporting avoiding driving a car and nearly 13 percent avoiding talking to the police or reporting a crime.

In cases where at least one of the family members didn't have a green card or citizenship, adults were three times more likely to report avoiding at least one activity than those in families with less vulnerable status. But for Hamutal Bernstein, co-author of the report and senior research associate in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, the fact that more than one in nine adults "in relatively secure families" also reported that behavior is still striking.

"If green card holders and naturalized citizens are also experiencing this kind of insecurity and fear, it shows the ripple effects of immigration policies and the generalized fear in immigrant communities," Bernstein says.

The study also suggests that adults in immigrant families who avoided at least one activity were more likely to report serious psychological distress. Researchers can't draw conclusions about the causality because the data is limited, but Bernstein says that the correlation might suggest that the current immigration climate is affecting people beyond just changes to their daily routines.

"These things are important to consider not just for the potential well-being and health consequences for these immigrant families, but for the broader communities that they live in," Bernstein says. "Community members, whether they have immigrants in their families or not, really do benefit from all residents having their basic needs met, being able to go to work, and being able to report crimes for public safety."

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