Health and Medicine

Even US Citizens' Babies Affected By Fear Of Deportation

The fear of arrest or deportation can affect the health of pregnant women, so much so that they give birth to underweight babies. Even more dramatically, evidence has emerged that the effect extends to women whose citizenship should protect them, but who are part of the affected ethnic group.

In 2008, a large workplace raid was carried out at the Agriprocessors abattoir in Postville, Iowa, using military tactics and a Black Haw helicopter. Most of the 389 workers arrested were from Guatemala, and workers deemed too Hispanic in appearance were allegedly chained together, including many who subsequently proved they were working legally. The raid was big news in Iowa, particularly among immigrants from central and south America, many of whom were so alarmed they slept in church pews.

Dr Nicole Novak of the University of Michigan used hospital records to investigate whether the raids affected the health of Latina mothers in Iowa. It is well established that emotional stress during pregnancy can lead to low birth-weight babies, which in turn is associated with an increased risk of ill-health later in life. Novak wanted to see if the raid, and the fear it engendered, showed up in the birth statistics.

Novak divided mothers in Iowa into three groups – those who identified as White, those who identified as Latina and were American born (and therefore definitely citizens), and Latina-identifiers born outside the United States. While some of the women in the third category would have become citizens and others possessed work permits, this data was not available, so they were grouped with those in danger of deportation. Novak told IFLScience that other Iowan ethnic populations were too small to provide useful data.

The birth weights of babies born to these three groups were compared over the 37 weeks following the raid and the equivalent period a year earlier.

The proportion of babies weighing less than 2,500 grams (5.5 pounds) among white mothers declined over this period, in line with a long-term improvement. However, both foreign-born and American-born Latinas had a statistically significant increase in the proportion of their children who were underweight, by 24 and 21 percent respectively.

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