Abstract: Toxic Immigration Stress: A Look at the Emotional Health of Adult Children of Immigrants in Latinx Mixed Status Families (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Toxic Immigration Stress: A Look at the Emotional Health of Adult Children of Immigrants in Latinx Mixed Status Families

Thursday, January 12, 2023
North Mountain, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Cecilia Ayon, PhD, Professor of Public Policy, University of California Riverside
Background and Purpose: Substantial evidence links exclusionary immigration policy and enforcement to poor health outcomes for Latinx undocumented immigrants and their resident and native counterparts (Ayón, 2020; Hatzenbuehler et al., Garcini et al., 2016). Family scholars, mostly focusing on mixed status families with young children, have found that the deleterious effects of immigration policy and enforcement on health are experienced by all family members, regardless of status, including children (Brabeck & Xu, 2010; Rubio-Hernandez & Ayón, 2016; Eskenazi et al., 2019;). The exclusionary immigration policy context is experienced as a form of psychological violence by children in mixed status families through the chronic threat of family separation (Barajas et al., 2018). Furthermore, scholars argue that the immigration policy context creates toxic stress, i.e, prolonged and continuous form of stress, for children (Stein, 2017). Building on previous research, we propose that individuals in mixed status families experience Toxic Immigration Stress.

Methods: This study uses interview data collected from 63 young adults in mixed status families (Mage=24). The sample includes 31 undocumented students and 32 U.S. citizen students with at least one undocumented parent. Sample questions: To what extent do you think immigration policies have impacted your mental and emotional well-being? What steps do you take to promote your well-being? Constructivist grounded theory methods including initial, focused, and axial coding informed the analysis. Multiple steps were taken to support the trustworthiness of the study (i.e., multiple coders, peer debriefing model, and multiple quotes per theme).

Findings: We use narratives from adult children of immigrants in mixed status families to illustrate how they endure Toxic Immigration Stress, or multigenerational, chronic stressors due to the immigration policy climate, specifically the threat of family separation. Toxic immigration stress is multigeneration as it is experienced by parents and children; it is chronic or long-term as youth experience this form of psychological violence as children and it persists into their adulthood (I’ve worried about my parents’ deportation since my teen years and up until adulthood. So I've always had that worry in the back of my mind.); it is constant as youth encounter triggers on a regular basis (e.g., changes in presidential administration, enforcement activity, deportation of community/family members, media, immigration discussion in the classroom; for DACA recipients and youth without status seeking jobs was an additional trigger); and it is proliferates impacting many areas of their lives (...affects so many other things it's like a domino effect...more like a snowball because it keeps getting bigger...). Toxic immigration stress becomes debilitating through youths’ experience of intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, and feelings of powerlessness. While youth and their families face structural inequities and are legally vulnerable, families are a critical source of strength for youth. Youth develop multiple coping strategies that help them mitigate toxic immigration stress.

Implications: Findings highlight the need for (1)trauma informed practice and dual generation approaches, (2)longitudinal research that follows mixed status families overtime, with data collected from parents and multiple children; and (3) policy changes that create a path to permanent legal residency.