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Immigrant Families Interrupt Daily Routines Due to Fear of Immigration Policies, Report Says

A Central American family in McAllen, Texas.

A Central American family in McAllen, Texas. Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock

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A new report found that many immigrant families are abstaining from everyday activities in which they could be asked about their citizenship status.

Changes in federal immigration policies and increased media attention to those changes have sowed fear throughout immigrant communities. That fear, according to a new report, has led many immigrants to withdraw from the public sphere to limit the opportunities for them to  be asked about their citizenship status.

The data, collected in 2018 and analyzed by researchers at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, was compiled in a new report detailing the widespread ripple effects of both the increased detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants under the Trump administration, as well as the publicity surrounding those efforts. 

About one in six adults from immigrant families reported that they or a family member had avoided interacting with teachers and school officials, health care providers, and the police, over concerns that these people might question their citizenship status. Activities that could lead to interactions with the police were the most commonly avoided, including driving a car, renewing  or applying for a driver’s license, and reporting a crime. But other, more innocuous activities that would place them in public view were also avoided, including going to public libraries or parks, and using public transportation. 

“If people are afraid to leave their houses or drive their cars, they may not be able to make it to their jobs, or take their children to school, or just fill their basic needs,” said Hamutal Bernstein, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute who authored the report. “This affects not just them, but other people who benefit from their community members having their basic needs met.”

Bernstein said one of the most surprising findings to come out of the data was related to the citizenship status of those who avoided routine activities. It might be expected that one in three adults from immigrant families that are not authorized to live or work in the U.S. or pending citizenship statuses would withdraw from public spaces. But more than one in nine adults from families where all foreign-born family members had green cards or U.S. citizenship also reported similar behavior.

“These are families with relatively safe immigration status, so it’s really striking,” Bernstein said. “I think that really illustrates the broad-based fear in immigrant communities and the ripple effect of immigration actions.”

Bernstein posited that this could be because families are complex and bridge multiple households, where extended relatives might lack green cards. Immigrants therefore retreat not only because they perceive a threat to themselves, but because they think their actions might endanger a loved one. The risks could include deportation, future action on green card or citizenship applications, or discrimination. 

The report’s findings were limited mainly to Latino immigrants, however, as the survey was only conducted in English and Spanish, leaving out other minority immigrants who might also fear these consequences but lack proficiency in English to respond.

This isn’t the first source of data on immigrant retreat though, and previous studies have confirmed that President Trump’s immigration policies—whether merely proposed or fully enacted—have a chilling effect on immigrants’ participation in public life. When the “public charge” rule change was proposed, which would negatively affect the citizenship applications of those who utilized government assistance, immigrant participation in public assistance programs dropped significantly.

Much of the data about immigrant retreat analyzed now simply wasn’t collected during the years of the Obama Administration, though, making longitudinal comparisons somewhat difficult.

One thing that has changed significantly in the past few years, however, is how cities and states are responding to federal immigration policy. There are now hundreds of sanctuary cities, and governors and mayors have regularly sparred with the administration over immigration raids. Attorneys general have also pushed legislation in several states protecting schools, hospitals, clinics, workplaces, and courts as places that should be safe from immigration enforcement.

Bernstein said that there is much that cities and states can do to make immigrants feel safer and more welcome in public life. “Lots of states are now providing “know your rights” education efforts, promoting citizenship and engagement efforts, strengthening relationships between immigrant communities and police departments, and facilitating dialogue in schools,” she said. “The balance between warning people and telling them not to be afraid is one that states and localities are still trying to figure out in this very volatile immigration policy climate.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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