USA ICE: How Immigration Enforcement Lowered Birth Weights

Having watched Immigration Nation, understandable:

Since 2002, counties across the U.S. have entered into agreements with Immigrations and Custom Enforcement to deputize local police officers to perform a range of ICE duties.

New research shows that in one county in North Carolina, the program negatively affected birth outcomes, including lowering average birth weights and decreasing the use of prenatal services by parents.

“Regardless of how you feel about immigration policies, it’s important to realize that there may be other effects that perhaps weren’t intended, but nevertheless have real consequences,” says Christina Gibson-Davis, a professor of public policy at Duke University and one of the authors of the peer-reviewed study. “Health at birth has real downstream effects — it’s related to lower earnings and worse health for adults.”

Immigration has historically been under the purview of the federal government, but in the last few decades, enforcement responsibilities have increasingly been delegated to local police and sheriff’s offices. Some local governments, loosely called “sanctuary cities,” refuse to participate in a number of ways. Others, let’s call them “anti-sanctuary cities,” jump at the chance to prove their tough-on-immigration bonafides. One way they do this is through what are known as 287g agreements.

Mecklenburg County pioneered the use of this program in 2006 to cast a wide net for undocumented immigrants under then-sheriff Jim Pendergraph, who later went on to join ICE’s ranks.

Gibson-Davis, who studies the effect of public policy on low-income families, wanted to test how this county’s 287g agreement might impact birth outcomes, given that social and economic disadvantages of parents are often visible in the health of their newborns.

She and her colleagues compiled data from state birth certificates between 2004 and 2006 and compared birth outcomes before and after the introduction of the policy in Mecklenburg County, where the city of Charlotte is based. They also compared the findings with other North Carolina regions that did not enter into 287g agreements.

After controlling for other factors through a statistical analysis, the researchers found that babies in Mecklenburg County weighed 58.54 grams (a little more than two ounces)less on average than before the policy change. This effect corresponded with an increase in the share of children who were small for their gestational age at birth and a decrease in prenatal care utilization by parents.

“We feel pretty confident that we’ve identified … what we call the ‘causal impact,’” Gibson-Davis says. The effect “wasn’t because of changes in the population necessarily, or some other factor that might have been happening at the same time.”

The researchers didn’t test the reasons for this outcome, but they can make some educated guesses.

“There is a large [body of] literature that suggests that stress can have negative effects on the fetus when it’s in utero, so though we can’t identify the exact cause, stress may be one reason for our findings,” Gibson-Davis says. As to the decrease in prenatal care, Gibson-Davis says those who feared the attention of ICE authorities may be less likely to risk going to a doctor.

The researchers also found that the effects were more pronounced for foreign-born mothers with a lower level of education, which they believe signals a couple of things: One, this group may be more likely to be undocumented; and two, it may include parents who have “fewer resources with which to buffer stress,” Gibson-Davis says. (Data on citizenship status was not included in the study.)

The findings add to a body of research on the adverse health effects of aggressive local immigration enforcement. Other studies have found that Latina and Hispanic pregnant women tend to seek less prenatal care because they lack trust in authorities, and that Latino immigrants report lower mental well-being.

The rationale from Trump-era officials for 287g agreements — a version of which continues to be up on the ICE web page about the program — is that they enhance “the safety and security of communities by creating partnerships with state and local law enforcement agencies.” But other research has called this goal into question. Studies have found that 287g agreements don’t reduce crimes and can actually deter immigrants from reporting crime. They can also lead to racial profiling complaints and cause a “chilling effect,” prompting immigrants fearful of increased enforcement in their communities to withdraw from public life, including by frequenting businesses or seeking education services that they need. All of this could play a role in the health outcomes Gibson-Davis studied in her research.

The number of 287(g) agreements multiplied exponentially during the Trump administration. From 2017 to 2018, they doubled from 35 to more than 70. By the time Trump left office, the number of these agreements had jumped to 150. A new Governmental Accountability Office report found that the program’s rapid expansion under Trump took place without adequate oversight, tracking or training.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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