Heart health at risk for Latinas worried about deportation

A recent study conducted by researchers at UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health (CERCH) found that worry about deportation was associated with multiple cardiovascular health risk factors in Latinas from California’s Salinas Valley, home to many immigrants. The study was published in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, on January 8.

A female farm worker picks and packages strawberries in Salinas. (iStock photo)

The new study is the first data-driven research into the connection between deportation fears and measured cardiovascular risk factors. While past descriptive studies have documented the impact of deportation fears on the mental health of immigrants, their families and their communities, none have examined how this fear gets “under the skin” to affect physical health.

Between 2012 and 2014, researchers gathered data from 545 women enrolled in Berkeley’s internationally recognized Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) cohort, the longest-running study based in a U.S. farmworker community. They asked mothers in the cohort about how much worry deportation caused them and monitored their vital signs and other health information. Using these data, the UCSF and CERCH team created statistical models to look at the relationship between deportation worry and health metrics such as blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, which previous studies have linked to other structural and societal stressors like discrimination.

Almost half of the women expressed a lot of worry about deportation. Overall, those who were more concerned had significantly greater waist circumferences and odds of obesity as well as higher body mass indexes, all risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke. The researchers also found that greater worry about deportation was linked to higher systolic blood pressure (the pressure in blood vessels when a heart beats) and pulse pressure, an important indicator of heart health.

The findings held even when controlling for measures of socioeconomic status, age, time spent in the United States and country of origin. The researchers also explored how depression may affect worry about deportation and cardiovascular risk factors, since the disorder might drive both.

“These results are not surprising, given what we know about the effects of other societal stressors on physical well-being, including cardiovascular risk factors,” says Jacqueline Torres, first author of the study and assistant professor at UCSF. “They are nevertheless heartbreaking, because they suggest that individuals who are targeted by immigration enforcement practices – and live in fear of the effects on their family and community members – might bear a dual burden related to the adverse consequences of this immense stress on their physical health.”

Dramatic increases in deportations over the last two decades, along with local police working more closely with federal immigration authorities, have fostered an environment of fear across many U.S. immigrant communities. According to a national survey fielded last year, almost half of Latinos living in the United States worry about deportation, either for themselves or someone close to them. The consequences of this fear and stress can extend beyond day-to-day life and impact overall health and well-being.

The broader literature on the health impacts of psychosocial stress points to several ways that deportation fears may affect heart health. Persistent worry may chronically activate a person’s stress response system or increase sensitivity to other factors, such as food insecurity, that increase stress. This fear could even affect sleep quality and duration, and chronic stress has been linked to inflammation, with can affect cardiovascular health.

Though no one study is sufficient to draw causal conclusions about the effects of fear of deportation on clinical risk factors, this study suggests that immigration policies may have potential long-term health consequences in women.

These data were collected during the Obama administration, when deportations soared. Recent reports suggest that deportation rates are rising further under the Trump presidency. The researchers began this study because of concerns about the impacts of deportation on the community. Members of the CERCH team have been working with the same group of women for decades – some as early as 1999 – and heard firsthand about the effects of immigration enforcement on the lives of these women.

“Given the current immigration policies, I am especially concerned about the adverse effects of deportation fear on the mental and physical health of the children in these families, many of whom are United States citizens,” says study co-author Brenda Eskenazi, director of CERCH, principal investigator of CHAMACOS and professor at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

“These farmworker families are critical to the success of the agricultural economy in California and deserve our support,” adds Torres.

Additional authors of the study include Julianna Deardorff, UC Berkeley School of Public Health; Robert B. Gunier, Kim Harley, and Katherine Kogut of CERCH; and Abbey Alkon, School of Nursing, UCSF.