Giving Thanks for Obama’s Bid to Bring Millions of Immigrants Out of the Shadows

This Thanksgiving, I have a lot to be thankful for: a healthy family, a roof over my head, a well-paying and secure job and a community I feel safe in. Most of all, I am thankful for the peace of mind of knowing my family will be here for me, day in and day out.

As I write this morning, up to 5 million more people who live, work, and love in this country also have the promise of knowing they will not be torn apart from their families and communities. Last night President Obama announced that he will grant deportation reprieves to many undocumented parents whose children are American citizens and legal permanent residents. Migration Policy Institute data shows who will be affected.

The president is exercising his executive powers to end the cruel breakup of families of children entitled to be here, and allowing them to remain and work here legally. Although it offers no path to citizenship, the order effectively ends the Secure Communities program that has resulted in the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants, and local police can no longer routinely detain immigrants without papers.

What the executive order does, first and foremost, is create a reprieve for many mixed-status families who have been suffering from anxiety, stress and other ill health effects from the lack of legal status. In 2013, HIP released Family Unity, Family Health, an HIA to understand how immigration policy – specifically the ongoing threat of detention and deportation – influenced the health and well-being of children and families. Our evidence overwhelmingly showed that harsh and inflexible immigration policies were harming hundreds of thousands of children, and that their health suffered needlessly as a result of laws that threatened to tear their families apart.

We learned that nationwide, an estimated 4.5 million children who are U.S. citizens lived in families where one or more of their parents was undocumented. Between 1998 and 2012, at least 600,000 children who were citizens had a parent or guardian deported. If deportations were to continue at 2012 rates, in 2014 alone, more than 152,000 children who were citizens would have a parent taken away from them.

I earlier wrote in detail about findings from our report. To summarize, these children and their families live with anxiety about the future – fearful that arrest, detention or deportation will tear their families apart. And anxiety and fear are only part of the damaging impacts of their families’ precarious legal status: Children of the undocumented may also suffer from poverty, diminished access to food and health care, mental health and behavioral problems and limited educational opportunities—particularly when a parent is arrested and detained or deported.

What was new about HIP’s research was that we shined a light on health consequences that are rarely discussed in the immigration policy debate. Our findings were highlighted extensively in national and international news coverage.

When the children of undocumented immigrants live daily with the effects of losing a parent, or anxiety about losing a parent, they are fearful that their families will be torn apart. The trauma of actual separation – or simply just the fear of it – can imprint on a young child’s brain, and result in what researchers call toxic stress response. The effects of immigration policy matter not just to children’s health today, but pose risks to health as these kids grow into adolescents and adults.

The new executive order goes a long way towards alleviating these risks. Tens of thousands of fewer children will experience poorer physical health outcomes. Over 100,000 fewer children will show signs of withdrawal. Over 125,000 fewer children will live in a food insufficient household. As Paul Krugman put it in today’s New York Times:

Today’s immigrant children are tomorrow’s workers, taxpayers and neighbors. Condemning them to life in the shadows means that they will have less stable home lives than they should, be denied the opportunity to acquire skills and education, contribute less to the economy, and play a less positive role in society.

There is still much more to do. It is unknown whether the order will be maintained under future administrations, and the order excludes access to food stamps, health care subsidies, and other public benefits – the very supports that create optimal health for children and families. And another 5 million people – including the parents of DREAMers and farm workers – who are not covered under the order will be forced to remain in the shadows.

But let us be thankful for progress – even as we vow to continue to work for just and humane immigration policies that place family unity and children’s health before fear, exclusion and punishment.

Lili Farhang

Lili Farhang


Lili Farhang joined Human Impact Partners in December 2009 and serves as one of its two Co-directors. Guided by her long-standing belief that health is a product of social, economic and political forces, Lili works with community organizations, government agencies, and others to re-conceptualize how health is understood and how we can collectively improve health by taking action in, for example, land use, transportation, housing, incarceration, and labor domains. As one of the first practitioners of health impact assessment in the U.S., she has extensive experience in the management, research, and community engagement aspects of HIA – for example, she led the first ever community-based HIA in the country and has since conducted over a dozen HIAs. She also provides training and technical assistance to aspiring practitioners, using her practical experience to guide how HIAs are conducted, how public engagement is incorporated, and ultimately, how research that is meaningful and responsive to community and stakeholder needs is generated. Lili received her Master's degree in Public Health from Columbia University and her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Women's Studies from Brandeis University.