Immigration raids linked to low birth weight

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Following a raid, babies were 24% more likely born with low birth weight compared to those born a year earlier.
Credit: WIN-Initiative / Getty Images

It’s reasonable to assume that harsh enforcement of immigration policies might have adverse health and welfare consequences for the migrant populations affected, but developing research-based methods to test the proposition has proved tricky.

To address this, a research team led by Nicole Novak of the Population Studies Centre at the University of Michigan School of Public Health found a correlation between immigration enforcement and the birth weight of babies born into targeted communities.

The research, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, focuses on babies born to Latin American women in the weeks after a large-scale Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on a meat-processing plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2008.

The raid resulted in the arrest of 389 employees, 98% of whom were from Latin American backgrounds. It was a surprise attack by 900 agents, some of them armed, using military tactics and backed up by a Black Hawk helicopter.

Arrestees were chained together by their ankles at a local cattle fairground. Of those arrested, 297 were eventually deported after serving five-month prison sentences.

“Immigration enforcement is often diffuse, covert and difficult to measure,” the researchers wrote. “By contrast, the federal immigration raid in Postville […] was, at the time, the largest single-site federal immigration raid in US history.”

During the incursion, the researchers say agents “used presumed race/ethnicity to identify suspected undocumented immigrants, allegedly handcuffing all employees assumed to be Latino until their immigration status was verified”.

Novak’s team set about measuring the impact of this event by comparing the birth weight of babies born to Latin American mothers across the state before and after the Postville raid.

“We analysed Iowa birth certificate data to compare risk of term and preterm low birth weight (LBW), by ethnicity and nativity, in the 37 weeks following the raid to the same 37-week period the previous year.”

The results showed a 24% greater risk of low birth weight among babies born in the cohort in the weeks following the raid compared to those born one year earlier. Birth weights remained steady between 2006 and 2007.

The researchers say the raid had knock-on effects that may have increased stress for members of the Latin American community beyond those directly affected by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement action.

“Reports from throughout Iowa after the Postville raid include evidence of individuals and families preparing for the possibility of further immigration enforcement, avoiding public space, restricting spending, losing income or economic security due to changing employment practices and experiencing increased discrimination, stereotype threat or racialised exclusion,” the team reported.

The effect on birth weight was also observed among babies of US-born mothers of Latin American ethnicity who were at no risk of deportation, suggesting the event had an impact on the entire community, regardless of citizenship status.

“Increased risk of LBW was observed for USA-born and immigrant Latina mothers,” the researchers explained. “No such change was observed among infants born to non-Latina White mothers.”

According to the report, the findings demonstrate the implications of racialised stressors for an entire ethnic community.

This supports the theory that social policies can have detrimental effects on disadvantaged groups, leading to poorer health outcomes.

“Although USA-born Latinos are not subject to immigration deportation, many are embedded in communities targeted by immigration enforcement,” the paper stated, “and may experience discrimination, ‘othering’ or chronic identity-related vigilance in response to racialised exclusion.”

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