Guest post by Maria-Elena Young, PhD Student, Department of Community Health Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles and a graduate student researcher at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Her research focuses on using qualitative and quantitative methods to examine the public health impact of the immigration system, including the creation of legal status, immigration enforcement, and inclusive state and local immigrant policies. This post is the third installment of the Border Criminologies Themed Week on Deportation Threat, Realities, and Practices in the United States organised by Tanya Golash-Boza.

In La jaula de oro, a ballad by the norteño group Los tigres del norte, a man tells his mournful story of living in the United States without papers. He has worked hard. He has established himself and raised his children here. Yet he’s unable to enjoy a life of liberty and peace for fear of deportation:

De mi trabajo a mi casayo no se lo que me pasaaunque soy hombre de hogarcasi no salgo a la callepues tengo miedo que me hallen y me puedan deportar.  From my work to my homenot sure what’s up with me.Although a guy who loves his homeI never leave the house‘cuz I’m scared that they’ll find me and could deport me

The song’s title‘the cage of gold’―provides a metaphor not only for the actual borders of the US, but the barriers created by enforcement:

De qué me sirve el dinerosi estoy como prisionerodentro de esta gran prisióncuando me acuerdo hasta lloroy aunque la jaula sea de oro no deja de ser prisión.What good to me is money,if I live like a prisonerinside this huge prison?When I think of it I cry.The cage may be made of gold, but it never fails to be a prison.

As illustrated in the song, immigrants experience numerous sources of stress from this la jaula or cage, whether it’s immigration enforcement and the direct threat of deportation or workplace enforcement that creates poor job security and low wages. As the man becomes more settled in the US, the daily stress he experiences doesn’t diminish.

The Wear and Tear of Daily Stress

Despite the strength and resilience of individuals such as La jaula’s protagonist, this stress wears and tears on people’s well-being, a negative consequence that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Public health research is beginning to show that la jaula―immigrants’ social and economic environments―may be harmful to health. The following are some key implications.

  • Barriers to health care: Undocumented immigrants face more barriers to health care than other immigrants, including late or inadequate prenatal care or less preventive care. Undocumented immigrants in communities where police participate in immigration enforcement, as well as those who express concern about deportation, regardless of legal status, are also less likely to seek care.
  • Psychological and mental distress: When compared to their documented counterparts, undocumented immigrants experience higher levels of fear of deportation, anxiety and depression, psychological distress, and stress from low-paying work and the process of acculturation.
  • Possible risk for chronic disease: Immigrants are generally considered to be healthier than US born individuals. Recently, I conducted a study of the relationship between legal status and blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) in a representative sample from Los Angeles County. Undocumented immigrants who had resided in the US fewer than 15 years had higher blood pressure than their documented counterparts, taking socio-demographic factors into account. Yet, undocumented and documented immigrants in the US for more than 15 years had similarly high levels of blood pressure, comparable to their presumably less healthy US born counterparts. There were no differences in BMI among the undocumented, documented, or US born individuals. More research is needed to understand the long-term impact of stress on physical health, such as risk for cardiovascular disease. These findings, however, suggest that more recent undocumented immigrants may have poorer health than documented immigrants and over time neither group maintains better health than US born individuals.

Health is an Immigrant Rights Issue

Until recently, health researchers have presumed that immigrants are relatively healthy. Immigrants’ experiences living under our nation’s enforcement system haven’t been examined as a possible risk to health. There is now mounting evidence that the threat of deportation and other exclusionary immigration policies have consequences for the health of immigrants. Undocumented immigrants, in particular, may be uniquely exposed to the wear and tear of stress.

The health and well-being of all immigrants is critical to the well-being of any nation. Public health researchers and practitioners, as well as others working to advance the rights of immigrants, have a responsibility to ensure that all immigrants are free from a jaula that not only denies them rights, but harms their mental and physical well-being.

Themed Week on Deportation Threat, Realities, and Practices in the United States:

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Young, M.E. (2015) Immigrant Health in la jaula. Available at: http://bordercriminologies.law.ox.ac.uk/immigrant-health-in-la-jaula/ (Accessed [date]).