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Stanford University School of Medicine

Immigration policy and kids’ health the focus of Stanford conference

Recent changes in immigration policy may affect children's health, several speakers at Stanford's first conference on child health and immigration agreed. The conference, hosted last week by the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, brought together Bay Area experts in pediatrics, law, health policy, education, community activism and other fields to share information about how shifting immigration enforcement priorities are affecting children.

By far the largest group of kids affected are U.S. citizens, the conference presenters said. Across the country, about 5 million children born in the United States have parents who are undocumented immigrants. These families are now grappling with increased fear of separation if the parents are deported, the researchers said.

Dana Weintraub, MD, medical director of the Peninsula Family Advocacy Program, which provides legal services to low-income families to help improve their children's health, gave an anecdotal example of how fear of deportation affects health: A pediatrician on her team recently saw a school-aged child with red eyes and a chronic cough. Wondering if the child had allergic conjunctivitis, the doctor asked about the family's living conditions. Their rented apartment had a persistent mold problem, the child's mother said. The doctor offered to write a letter to the family's landlord to remind him of his legal duty to remove mold, but the mother was reluctant to accept this help. She was undocumented and afraid to draw attention to herself, even if her rights as a tenant were being violated. After further conversation, the doctor was able to convince the mother to speak with a social worker about her family's options for getting their landlord to address the health hazard.

"When they are ill, we want all children to have access to the right care at the right time in the right place," Christopher Dawes, president and chief executive officer of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford and Stanford Children's Health, told conference attendees. "We do not ask patients their immigration status and don’t report it [if they tell us.] And we follow strict federal and state laws that protect patients’ right to privacy."

Speakers also described systematic efforts to assess changes in immigration policy.

"How do you devise policies that set immigrants up for success?" asked Stanford political scientist Jens Hainmueller, PhD. "In the immigration area, there is a distressing lack of evidence on the returns of these policies."

Hainmueller's team has been studying the effects of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an immigration policy instituted in 2012 that allows some young adults who were brought illegally to the United States as children to apply for temporary relief from deportation and a work permit.

"We need to broaden the calculus of immigration policy to consider whole families," Hainmueller said. "There could be significant gains from affording this protection to parents."

"There is no greater emotional stress to a child than losing his or her parents," said conference organizer and pediatrician Fernando Mendoza, MD, shown above. "It's a crisis when we start talking about taking that connection away."

In his closing remarks, he asked conference attendees to speak up for children affected by immigration policies.

Previously: Stanford conference to explore relationship between immigration policy and child health, Stanford Medicine students and faculty share immigration stories and Immigration ban harms health and biomedical research, Dean Lloyd Minor writes
Photo by Caitlin Duff-Brown

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