Op-ed: Repressive state-laws can harm mental health

A popular theory about mental health for children and young adults revolves around increased social media exposure. Digital technology now allows for the quick and rampant display of narcissistic sentiments and even intentions to bully. Research in this area is developing, but it appears to be dependent on how users engage with social media. Indeed, some uses are connected to degraded mental health, but the picture is complex and evolving.

Could increasing suicide ideation also be caused by drug and alcohol abuse? Perhaps not, since statistics indicate that such behaviors did not increase significantly from 2007 to 2017 as suicide numbers climbed.

Our recent study, published by the Center for Growth and Opportunity, looked at the immigration policy angle of mental health. We examined Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, which is commonly referred to as the “show me your papers” law. It authorizes Arizona’s police officers to conduct immigration checks if they have reasonable suspicion that a person is in the U.S. illegally.

Enforcing immigration policies aimed at undocumented immigrants, a spillover of the enforcement actions, even on legal residents, could produce unfavorable consequences. In particular, because many subject to this law are of Hispanic descent, if immigration enforcement authorities are racially profiling legal Hispanic residents or citizens, then attrition through enforcement strategies may also affect legal residents.

Our research finds that the more significant repercussions of SB 1070 policy enforcements are the increased probability of feeling sad and a decreased amount of reported physical activity among Hispanic adolescents. We find that under the SB 1070 immigration policy environment, Hispanic students in Arizona are 6.3% more likely to feel sad than their Hispanic peers in other states. Moreover, these students’ level of physical activity dropped by about 11 percentage points.

In part of the paper, we also show that Hispanic students in Arizona are 5.6 percentage points more likely to consider suicide compared to their instate white peers and Hispanic students in other states. This effect doesn’t show up in what we think is our best statistical model, but that does not entirely resolve our concerns that the immigration efforts by local police result in a restrictive social atmosphere where affected legal, Hispanic residents are caught up in the harmful effects of enforcement.

Solutions for the mental health effects of immigration enforcement are simple: craft policy that does not create a spillover onto legal citizens. Existing policies and regulations can be revisited, reexamined and reformulated. Among others, immigration laws should be tempered to avoid racial profiling tendencies, and instead foster feelings of security among domestic residents, regardless of ethnic affiliation.

A perfect example of this is the city of Dayton, Ohio. Facing a declining population, Dayton opened its doors to immigrants. Researchers attribute its recent economic growth to the arrival of “more educated” and “more entrepreneurial” immigrants.

As we learn more about mental health issues, proactive and remedial measures must be adopted.

When the law and its attendant policies are aligned with the general sentiment of fostering greater mental health awareness and care, a healthier, happier nation resides.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.