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The Medical Consequences That Stem From a Fear of Deportation

A new study finds a spike in low birthweight babies among Latinas in Iowa following a huge raid.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Donald Trump campaigned on a platform that ascribed much blame to undocumented immigrants. At least in the first few days of his administration, mass deportation has not emerged as a high priority—though that may change. Workers lacking papers are surely feeling more anxious about their status than they did six months ago.

New research suggests that anxiety could have profound health consequences for some of our most vulnerable new citizens.

The study reveals a spike in low-birthweight babies born to Latinas in Iowa in the wake of a large, well-publicized 2008 immigration raid in the state.

In the months immediately following the arrests and detentions, “Latino families feared deportations and follow-up raids, and faced increased economic and social marginalization,” lead author Nicole Novak, a University of Michigan epidemiologist, said in announcing the findings. “These stressors permeated the lives of both U.S.-born and foreign-born Latina mothers.”

While it has long been speculated that fears of deportation take a toll on the health of undocumented immigrants and their loved ones, the May 12th, 2008, raid on a meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, provided an opportunity to measure the effect of one highly visible event.

The raid featured “900 agents using military tactics,” the researchers write, adding that 389 people — 98 percent of whom were Latino — were arrested and placed in detention.

The researchers decided to see whether fears stirred up by the raid increased the risk of giving birth to a low-birthweight infant. Low-birthweight babies are those who weigh less than five pounds, eight ounces; such infants are more likely than normal-weight babies to have a variety of health problems early in life.

Using birth-certificate data, Novak and her colleagues compared the weights of infants born in the 37 weeks following the raid to those born in the same period one year earlier (37 weeks is the minimum length of a normal gestation).

“Whereas there was no change in risk of low birthweight for infants born to white mothers in Iowa,” they write, “infants born to Latina mothers in Iowa had a 24 percent higher risk of low birthweight in the period following the Postville raid.”

Specifically, for Latina immigrants, the percentage of low-birthweight babies increased from 4.5 percent in the year before the raid to 5.6 percent in the nine-month period just after it.

The rate similarly spiked for American-born Latina mothers, rising from 5.3 to 6.4 percent. This suggests the health effects of the raid were not limited to those who were in immediate danger of deportation.

In contrast, the percentage of such babies actually decreased slightly for white women, from 4.7 to 4.4 percent.

While these statistics don’t prove the stress of possible deportation caused this increase, it’s hard to find another explanation — especially since the findings remained robust after adjusting for such maternal risk factors as age, education, and smoking.

“The psychosocial, economic, communal and identity-based stressors activated by the Postville raid may have interfered with Latina mothers’ neuroendoctrine balance and coping resources, leaving infants vulnerable,” the researchers write.

Their findings offer a particularly gripping example of how stress affects health — and how public-policy decisions can have unintended negative consequences.