Transcription of the episode “The impact of deportation policies on Latinx students’ mental health”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Randy Capps, Director of Research for US programs at the Migration Policy Institute. Dr. Capps has published widely on immigration and integration at the state and local levels, and studied the impact of the detention and deportation of immigrant parents on children. Welcome, Randy.

Randy C: [00:00:40] Thank you so much. Thanks for having me on today. 

Jon M: [00:00:44] You recently completed a study on the impact of immigration enforcement policies on the mental health of Latinx students. Tell us about the study.

Randy C: [00:00:54] Sure. We did assessments of the mental health of about 300 Latino high school students in two places in the country, in a few districts in the state of Rhode Island and in a few schools in Harris County, Texas, which is home to Houston, the nation’s third largest city. We asked a series of questions about depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder as symptoms of mental health, as well as a series of questions about the degree to which the students were afraid for themselves or others in their family or other people that they knew about being arrested and deported by ICE. And there were a number of other questions as well, but that was the central part of the study.

Jon M: [00:01:39] What were the demographics of the students? Who were they?

Randy C: [00:01:42] The students were all Latino. They were a little bit over half what we would call first-generation. That means born outside the United States as an immigrant. And most of them would have come to the US when they were adolescents. And a little bit under half were born inside the United States but had immigrant parents. About three-quarters of the sample were families where either the student or the parents were born in Mexico or Central America, and those are the countries that most likely to be unauthorized immigrants, but we didn’t ask that. And the remainder were from other Latin American countries such as Colombia and Dominican Republic. 

Amy H-L: [00:02:22] What were your key findings?

Randy C: [00:02:24] Our key findings were that a little bit over half of the sample had one or more of the symptoms of one or more of three main types of mental health problems: anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. And this is a higher share than in other recent studies of populations of youth of the same age, be it Latino or of other race ethnic backgrounds.

Another key finding is that more than half of the students were afraid that somebody they knew be it a parent, another relative, a friend, or a close acquaintance might be detained and deported because of their immigration status.

And I think more critically, about a third of the sample reported that they had changed their daily routines and behaviors because they were worried about deportation. This meant that they didn’t drive. They didn’t go to an extra curricular activity at their school. They might have missed a health appointment, didn’t go to a church or another religious ceremony. And those folks who express this fear and this change in behavior were the most likely to show the mental health symptoms.

Jon M: [00:03:44] Were there differences in the numbers of traumatic experiences between foreign born students and US born students?

Randy C: [00:03:52] Yes. We also asked about the number of traumatic experiences that you’ve had experienced in their lives. These traumatic experiences range from witnessing assault, being assaulted themselves, having someone who is very close to them die, and being separated from a parent. And the average number of traumatic experiences that were reported were higher for the students born in the US than those born outside the US, about seven events on average for the foreign born and about eight events on average for those born inside the United States.

Jon M: [00:04:30] And do you have a sense of why that might be true?

Randy C: [00:04:34] So in addition to doing the survey of these youth in the high schools, we also spoke to educators in those high schools and people, experts in the surrounding communities. And what we heard is that many of these schools are located in dangerous neighborhoods. And some of the, some of the high schools actually had had shootings nearby. One of the schools that we visited had gang graffiti tags across the street. There’s a lot of violence, as you may know, in many lower income, urban neighborhoods in the US, and that’s where these schools were located.

And additionally, there’s a lot of research out there about how immigrant youth coming from Central America recently have been separated from their parents for a time. Their parents may have come here first and they came to join them. Or they may even have been separated at the border. But there’s also a lot of family instability in low-income Latino households generally. There’s also a lot of cases where people move around, where families split up, where parents split up  and the like, and that can be another source of trauma as well.

Amy H-L: [00:05:41] What difference in mental health impact did you find by gender? 

Randy C: [00:05:45] The girls were much more likely to report than the boys that they were depressed or anxious. This has also been reported in some other similar studies. It’s not necessarily related to having more traumatic experiences or being more afraid of immigration enforcement. The boys and girls fared similarly on both of those measures. But the girls were more likely to report these mental health symptoms, and they were also more likely likely to report that they went to counseling for mental health reasons.

Amy H-L: [00:06:17] To what do you attribute that?

Randy C: [00:06:19] It’s just that these are adolescents, right. The sample ranged in age from about 15 up to 25. Some are young adults, but most of them were adolescents, and girls at that age just generally tend to exhibit more symptoms of mental health. Some of that may be a reporting issue, that the boys are more likely not to acknowledge it. But some of it may also be just differences in how adolescent boys and girls think.

Jon M: [00:06:49] What did you find about students’ levels of perceived discrimination?

Randy C: [00:06:54] We asked a number of questions about whether the students felt discriminated on account of their race, ethnic background, or their language, or for other reasons. And actually, language was the most common one in about a quarter of the sample. But they reported much lower levels of discrimination overall than youth in similar high school samples recently.

Jon M: [00:07:18] And do you have a sense of, of why?

Randy C: [00:07:21] All but one or two of the study schools were very homogeneous in terms of having student bodies with large majority of Latinx populations. There was some diversity by the origin country, some diversity by how long their families had been in the US. Some are more likely, I’m sure, to be citizens or unauthorized immigrants, but they’re all Latino students in these schools. And what we were told when we met with the educators and people in the community was that these schools often operated as protective bubbles for the students because the students in general had support from students who were like them and also often from faculty and staff who were supportive.

Additionally, I’d say that many of these students lived in fairly homogeneous communities within the cities that were part of the study, that they were accustomed to hearing the Spanish language on the street, to seeing the kind of shops and businesses that you might see in Mexico or Central America, in some neighborhoods in particular. And so that kind of would make the terrain more familiar for the immigrant youth as well as for immigrant parents of the youth in the sample.

You also suggest that students may have more difficulties when they get into more diverse environments, for example, in college. Can you talk some about that?

The students we surveyed were still in high school when the data was collected, and we didn’t follow up with those students as they went on to college or university for those that did. But we did talk to the educators in their schools and a common theme in those conversations was that these students often had difficulty making the transition from a predominantly Latinx high school where their peers resembled them in many ways to a more diverse student body in university. Additionally, they often didn’t get the support they might’ve needed for mental health and otherwise in the university setting and so some of them had more trouble there than they did in high school. And that really suggests that, you know, having that support and having that homogeneous student body can be very protective for youth.

Amy H-L: [00:09:40] And what form did the support take? You mentioned that there were adults in these schools that provided support. Who are they?

Randy C: [00:09:51] Well, most of the schools that we visited had at least one or two supportive adults that the students could talk to. Now in the survey itself, the students who were born outside the United States were less likely to report that there was an adult they trust, that they could talk to in the school. Only about a quarter of them did. So I don’t want to say that all of these schools had a lot of really great resources for the kids. It did tend to vary across the sample, however. We met with principals, we met with counselors and social workers and teachers who were definitely the go-to people for, for the students in these groups. And certain characteristics were really important for that. Of course, if they were from similar backgrounds, if they were Latino themselves from the same countries, they could understand the experiences that these students had. That would be an asset. Maybe they grew up in a similar neighborhood and in a lower income, either mixed or a Latino neighborhood in a city in the US. They could apply that knowledge to their interactions with the students.

And then there were a fair number of [teachers] who were just from a white middle-class or upper middle-class background, but they’d been in the Peace Corps. One example is there was one teacher who had been to Guatemala and actually worked on building schools and teaching in schools there over the summer. He had been to the same region of the country that many of his students came from. So there were a variety of, of ways and backgrounds in which the staff in school could connect with students from these backgrounds. But there usually weren’t very many of them. It was usually a small minority.

Jon M: [00:11:33] You also mentioned before that frequently students may have been separated from their parents during the migration process. What kinds of support did you find or did the students say that they found from their families, from their parents, as well as from support they might be getting from people in the school?

Randy C: [00:11:53] So within the schools, the teachers and other educators told us a lot of stories about the students who’d come up from Central America recently who were living with siblings or an uncle  or grandparent, sometimes in unstable settings. But when asked in the survey about whether or not they had support from their families, the vast majority, close to 90%, said, yes, they did have that support. We didn’t delve into exactly what form that support takes in the survey, but we consider that to be actually a key strength of the students that we sampled.

Additionally, I would say that many of the recent students who’ve come up from Central America have formed very strong bonds with their peers that arrived with them or around the same time. And some of these schools have programs that are specifically designed for late entering immigrant students who come as teenagers. They can stay in school up until age 25 in the state of Texas. So even as young adults, they can continue to get an education and they may be in a program like that for a year or two. And one thing that the educators all mentioned is that many of the students from the same countries in the same areas of the same countries form very strong bonds, particularly when they don’t have close family members in the United States.

Amy H-L: [00:13:18] What about the school counselors. Do they play a prominent role in this process?

Randy C: [00:13:25] There was a lot of variation in the degree to which counseling and social work services were available in the different schools. Some of the schools that we visited in Rhode Island had been able to really build up their counseling and social work capacity. They had recently hired groups of counselors at the district level that came from various backgrounds that spoke Spanish as well as, in a couple of cases, some of the indigenous languages from Guatemala.

In the case of the schools in Harris County, Texas, there definitely was sort of, if you will, a higher ratio of students to counselors, less availability of that resource within the schools. But the Houston metropolitan area has a lot of resources when it comes to mental health. There’s a lot of major hospitals and health centers. There are some major universities. There are some really strong community based organizations that are connected to immigrant families and to schools in a lot of different ways. And the schools in Harris County were able to tap into a broad variety of resources in the community to help provide counseling where they couldn’t do it in house.

Jon M: [00:14:38] What links did you find between discipline practices and students’ immigration-related fears?

Randy C: [00:14:46] US high schools often have disciplinary policies that result in suspension from school, and sometimes the involvement of the police, like a school resource officer when there’s a problem in the classroom. This approach to discipline can run a great risk if you have an unauthorized immigrant student in class. And there was an example like this in Harris County around the same time that we did the field work, where a student got involved in an altercation with another student, was arrested for it, wound up in the county jail, and wound up in the pipeline to be deported by ICE. So when disciplinary practices rely heavily on removal from the classroom and an involvement of law enforcement system, they can run this risk.

But there are alternative ways of conducting discipline. And another district that we included in this study used an approach called restorative justice. And instead of using suspension from class and law enforcement involvement, restorative justice emphasizes discussion and conversation. An example that we were given in one school is that there was a student who was pulling the fire alarm on a frequent basis and suspension was the punishment, but he viewed it as a reward because he got time off from school. So he was pulling the alarm multiple times, getting suspended multiple times. The restorative  justice approach required him to sit down with someone from the fire department and talk about the consequences of pulling a fire alarm. What it meant, if, say, for instance, the firetruck had to come to school because of a false alarm and couldn’t go rescue someone in the community who had a heart attack. The restorative justice approach required the student to write about what he had done, to report back on it to the people that he had done it to. And so it is a more. Intensive approach. It requires social work, but it runs a much lower risk that the student will be taken out of the classroom for extended periods of time. It doesn’t stigmatize the student as much in terms of punishment and it doesn’t run that risk that they could be arrested and wind up in the deportation pipeline.

Amy H-L: [00:17:02] Given that the school resource officers are still at the schools and likely to be there for the foreseeable future, what can school officials do to try to counteract the fears of students about interactions with the SROs?

Randy C: [00:17:20] Well, the school resource officers can be retrained and can play different roles. They don’t have to be there as police officers. In one of the schools that we visited, in fact, the SROs were greeters. That school tended to have the principal and many of the faculty greet students on their way in and on their way out, at the beginning and the end of each school day, and the SROs were part of that group of greeters. They also spent a lot of time interacting informally with the students, for instance, at lunch hour, on breaks, et cetera, and tried to be there in a supportive role. So usually they might be involved when there was an infraction, but usually they were not… The first line of defense was to go to a discussion with a social worker in a restorative justice format. And so the SROs were not the people that the students would see that were associated with discipline most of the time. Only if it was very serious. Instead, they were associated with greeting, casual conversations, and being there for social support.

Jon M: [00:18:30] You’ve mentioned the mental health services that students can access, whether within the school or through community based organizations and so forth,.What are some of the obstacles that students face in accessing or utilizing these mental health resources?

Randy C: [00:18:47] In our sample, only about a third of the students who reported serious mental health symptoms were receiving some form of counseling. So there definitely were some barriers to this. The girls were more likely to be getting some form of counseling than the boys were. There may be a gender dimension to this, that the girls are more willing to admit to mental health problems and seek assistance than the boys.

But in general, this, these schools don’t have a lot of resources. These are schools that have very limited budgets, like many urban school districts with predominantly low income populations. They have budget limitations. A lot of the budget tends to and  need to be focused on academics, because the schools are graded, if you will, on the test scores and the passing rates of the students. So one issue is a resource issue.

A second is where counseling exists, it is generally difficult to find bilingual and bicultural social workers and counselors. Some of the most effective ones were actually people who worked for, who were students at a university, who would be there for an internship in the school, who worked for a local community based organization and they there on contract. But even if counseling is available, if it’s not bilingual, bicultural, if it’s not being offered by someone that the student can relate to, then they might not take advantage of it. And then, you know, we were also told when we met with the educators, particularly the students from Central America tend to come from a context where people don’t, as a rule, seek counseling, where mental health is not really openly discussed, where it’s really highly unusual for someone to seek out services in such a situation.

Amy H-L: [00:20:40] And what can be done about that to change the cultural view on counseling.?

Randy C: [00:20:47] Well, like having adults in the school that can relate to the students, either because they’re from a similar background or they’ve been able to get some training and life experience that makes them able to relate to someone from a different background. A lot of it, I think, has to do with,  if you will, the social capital of the counseling and social services or social support staff. And, you know, it’s not just a matter of training. Again, it’s a matter of finding people who have the personality and the skills to be able to relate to others. That’s not easy to find, but you know, there–universities do train on that. Both of our sites, Rhode Island and Harris County, did have universities nearby that had pretty diverse student bodies and that can help. 

Another issue though, is trying to just create a way for students to connect with someone at the school. It doesn’t always have to be elevated to the level of real mental health counseling, but just someone that they can talk to. And  we spoke about that earlier that the foreign born students in the sample in particular, a majority of them did not have someone they felt they could talk to. So the starting point is really finding people and then developing a team and developing a way that students can access the caring adults in the school that they can trust. One of the districts actually had developed some plans to place principals in certain schools with high immigrant populations that had some training and experience, that could work with those populations, and figuring out how to assemble a small team around them, be it a couple of teachers, maybe one counselor or a social worker, but that each of these high immigrant population schools, if you will, would have at least a small team in place that the students could relate to.

Jon M: [00:22:45] There’s a program called Youth Mental Health First Aid that a number of schools around the country have been involved in, which basically involves training bus drivers or the security person at the door or the custodian, not necessarily professionals, to be someone and to be alert to the idea that if a student’s having issues being able to refer them someplace. Did any of the schools that you were working with have this program or anything structured like that?

Randy C: [00:23:17] We did not hear of that program in particular, but again, one of the districts with this restorative justice approach really changed the role of school resource officers, and they did get intensive training. It was also an area that had a community policing program, so those SROs did function as, you mentioned that some of these other programs, as greeters, as staff. They’re not educators, but general building staff that would be there and be a friendly face.

There was also example of schools developing networks of parents, parent liaisons that were hired and trained by a parent who’d been at that role a little bit longer, to try to connect with the students on a regular basis, also as greeters when the kids would come to and from school, during lunch hour, et cetera. So I think using parents as another way to address that issue.

Amy H-L: [00:24:17] Did the students you studied have opportunities to be involved in their communities or to engage in public policy advocacy?

Randy C: [00:24:27] Yes, both in Harris County and in Rhode Island, there were a number of community based organizations that worked with students to try to take the students’ own worldview and experiences and expand it to relate to the broader society, to relate to what was going on in the city and the state and at the national level. And in fact, this was. In the words of some of the people that we interviewed, one of the keys to, to addressing mental health. So, you know, take, for instance, a student who was very quiet, anxious, you know, maybe depressed, and then trying to get her to talk to a small group about her immigration experiences, maybe only one or two students at a time, and then to bring in the issues: Well, what are some of the issues related to lack of immigration status in the United States? What are some of the issues related to difficulties learning English, to cultural differences, et cetera. And then,  in this one particular example, that student was then able to move out of her shell and on to a role where she was speaking to a larger group of students. And then it was in an auditorium. And then she was meeting with her congressional representative and lobbying and in the state Capitol and in Washington DC. So that may be a rare example, but it’s possible for someone who has some anxieties and some difficulties associated with their immigrant experiences to understand that there’s a larger world out there, that there are many people that experience these anxieties, and that they’re coming from a system: a political system, a social system, and that it’s possible to lobby for change.

And so many of the people that we spoke to felt it was quite powerful to motivate the students to take a role. And we’ve seen this nationwide with the movement of DREAMERS. We’ve seen many people who have had an unauthorized immigration status, or maybe still do, be able to come out front and lead these movements and really become proponents for social change. And it really does a world of good for their own personal career trajectories as well as their own personal social and mental health.

Jon M: [00:26:51] Is there anything we haven’t discussed that you’d like to mention? 

Randy C: [00:26:55] This study would not have been possible without my colleagues at Rhode Island College,  Kalina Brabeck, and University of Houston, Jody Berger Cardoso, and their students, who are the ones who collected the data for the assessments. And they did a masterful job of collaborating with the schools, finding the students, and interviewing them. So the base of knowledge comes from their hard work. And also I have to thank the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for their financial support for the project.

Amy H-L: [00:27:28] Our thanks to you, Dr. Randy Capps, and to all those who helped you in the study. And thank you listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, and give us a rating or review. This helps people to find the show. Check out our website,  for episodes and articles, and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week!

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