From Undocumented to DACAmented: Can Changes to Legal Status Impact Psychological Wellbeing?

June 15 marks the 5-year anniversary of the DACA program. For the first time, a recent study analyzes DACA’s impacts on recipients’ psychological wellbeing. The results are clear: DACA can make you feel better, though it may not resolve concerns about deportation.

by Caitlin Patler and Whitney Laster Pirtle

Original art by Liliana Alonso and Andres "Rhips" Rivera.

Original art by Liliana Alonso and Andres "Rhips" Rivera.

Undocumented immigrant youth in the United States face a host of challenges that impact their psychological wellbeing. Many experience hopelessness, shame and self-blame, anxiety, fear of deportation, and concern about blocked social mobility. One recent study found that undocumented youth experience a loss of “ontological security,” or the inability to count on the stability of the future. Another study led by immigrant youth at the UCLA Dream Resource Center found that undocumented youth struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma, and emotional distress related to their status. There have even been reports of suicide among undocumented young people who felt they could not overcome the barriers imposed by their status.

It is clear that the legal marginalization undocumented immigrants face can detrimentally impact health. Yet there is still very little research that documents how undocumented young peoples’ psychological wellbeing might alter if their legal status were to change, even if temporarily.

Becoming DACAmented

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program provides a unique opportunity to understand the experiences of individuals who transition from undocumented status into other, even slightly less marginalized, statuses. Announced by President Obama in June of 2012, DACA allows eligible undocumented youth to apply for temporary (and revocable) lawful presence that includes work authorization, a social security number, and other related benefits, renewable every two years. As of the first quarter of 2017, 925,921 individuals applied for DACA, with 26% of applications coming from California, and the vast majority of applicants originating from Latin America. DACA allows us to ask: Can changes to legal status impact health, particularly psychological wellbeing?

Put differently, can getting DACA make you feel better?

We recently completed a study aimed to answer these questions. Our research provides the first statistical analysis of differences in psychological wellbeing between immigrant young adults, retrospectively measured before and after a transitioning from undocumented to DACAmented status. Our data come from original telephone survey data of 487 Latino immigrant young adults in California. These data were collected 2.5 years after the program’s initiation (between November 2014 and February 2015), in order to allow sufficient time to observe the impacts of the program. We compared a control group of young people who remained undocumented with those who transitioned into lawful presence via DACA. Specifically, we examined four outcomes related to immigrants’ psychological wellbeing: 1) distress (including reports of stress, nervousness or anxiety); 2) negative emotions (anger, fear, sadness, shame, and embarrassment); and 3) worry about deportation of one’s self or 4) one’s family.

Our study revealed several key findings. We began by asking about psychological wellbeing during the time when everyone in the study was undocumented (either prior to receiving DACA, for recipients, or in the past year, for respondents without DACA). Statistical tests of responses to these questions show that past psychological wellbeing was predicted almost exclusively by socioeconomic status. For example, those who were worse off financially reported higher levels of distress, negative emotions, and deportation worry.

However, current psychological wellbeing is most strongly predicted by whether or not someone has DACA. For example, the predicted probability of experiencing distress and negative emotions started out at 70% for both undocumented and DACAmented individuals(see Figure 1). However, current distress and negative emotions (measured in the 30 days prior to the survey) for DACA recipients dropped to under 20%, whereas they were over 40% for those without DACA. These results suggest that the change from ‘undocumented’ to ‘lawfully present’ is associated with improvements to psychological wellbeing.

Figure 1. Predicted Probability of Psychological Wellbeing Measures, by DACA Status (From Patler and Pirtle 2017)

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

However, as Figure 2. demonstrates, DACA status does not significantly reduce worry about the deportation of family members, suggesting that programs that target individuals do not go far enough in addressing the overall wellbeing and needs of mixed-immigration-status families.

Figure 2. Predicted Probability of Psychological Wellbeing Measures, by DACA Status (From Patler and Pirtle 2017)

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

Notes: N=487. Responses were collected between November 2014 and February 2015. Predicted probabilities account for respondents’ sex, age, years in the United States, trouble paying bills, educational level, mother’s educational level, mother’s legal status.

“I feel like I belong and other people know I exist:” How Legal Status Transitions Impact Health

Our study showed that transitioning to DACA status after being undocumented was associated with significant reductions in distress and negative emotions. What might explain these results? In response to the question “What do you think has most changed for you since receiving DACA?” DACA recipients in our study shared:

“[I have] a changed outlook on my future because it was very uncertain before.”

“I have a better job, I am more stable, and not afraid to drive around. I have an ID now and I am more capable to do what I want. I feel better emotionally, physically, and psychologically.”

“The security of knowing that you can actually be outside without worrying that you’ll get deported. It brings a lot of benefits: better job and more work and you can actually apply for healthcare. In a sense, it brings you into the community.”

“Peace. [I can] breathe better. Hope. And knowing I exist. I feel like I belong and other people know I exist.”

Such sentiments indicate that DACA has had a legitimizing effect on recipients, in which access to lawful presence and new opportunities has improved their sense of security in their future, which is so closely tied to overall psychological wellbeing.

Looking forward

While we are encouraged by the positive nature of these findings, we remain cautious about whether DACA can offer permanent transformative effects on wellbeing. First, DACA provides individual relief from deportation but does not apply to family members. As we show, DACA recipients in our study were no less likely than non-recipients to report ongoing worry that a family member will be deported. This finding is consistent with research documenting pervasive fear of law enforcement and family separation among the children of undocumented immigrants.

Perhaps most importantly, though, because DACA is a temporary program and does not offer permanent legal status, it is likely that the emotional health benefits of the program could decrease over time if access to permanent status and citizenship remains elusive or if DACA is discontinued.

In the absence of any large-scale legalization program since the mid-1980s, an entire generation of children has grown up without legal status. We know that a lack of legal status impacts multiple aspects of immigrants’ lives, including health and wellbeing, and we also know that communities do not benefit when individuals are unhealthy. Our research shows that changes to immigrant legal status can improve psychological wellbeing. Inasmuch as individual wellbeing is linked to overall community health, then our findings are of critical importance as the country continues to debate policy solutions for undocumented communities.

Dr. Caitlin Patler is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. Her research explores citizenship and legal status as axes of stratification that significantly shape opportunities for mobility. She is currently conducting longitudinal mixed-methods research studies on: 1) immigration detention, deportation, and the intersections of immigration and criminal law, and 2) the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. 

Dr. Whitney N. Laster Pirtle is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her research interests include race, identity, mental health, and quantitative methods. Her research is primarily informed by social psychological frameworks, and explores how social structures, such as racial hierarchies, might impact individuals’ lived experiences, wellbeing, and identities. Using historical, survey, and qualitative data, she is currently exploring the formation and transformation of the “coloured” racial group in post-apartheid South Africa.