healthHealth and Medicine

Immigration Fears Can Impact Birth Weight Of Even US Citizens' Babies


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

Latina in prison

Fear of arrest or deportation can affect the health of mothers and their babies. Sakhorn/Shutterstock

The fear of arrest or deportation can affect the health of pregnant women, so much so that they give birth to underweight babies. Even more dramatically, evidence has emerged that the effect extends to women whose citizenship should protect them, but who are part of the affected ethnic group.

In 2008, a large workplace raid was carried out at the Agriprocessors abattoir in Postville, Iowa, using military tactics and a Black Haw helicopter. Most of the 389 workers arrested were from Guatemala, and workers deemed too Hispanic in appearance were allegedly chained together, including many who subsequently proved they were working legally. The raid was big news in Iowa, particularly among immigrants from central and south America, many of whom were so alarmed they slept in church pews.


Dr Nicole Novak of the University of Michigan used hospital records to investigate whether the raids affected the health of Latina mothers in Iowa. It is well established that emotional stress during pregnancy can lead to low birth-weight babies, which in turn is associated with an increased risk of ill-health later in life. Novak wanted to see if the raid, and the fear it engendered, showed up in the birth statistics.

Novak divided mothers in Iowa into three groups – those who identified as White, those who identified as Latina and were American born (and therefore definitely citizens), and Latina-identifiers born outside the United States. While some of the women in the third category would have become citizens and others possessed work permits, this data was not available, so they were grouped with those in danger of deportation. Novak told IFLScience that other Iowan ethnic populations were too small to provide useful data.

The birth weights of babies born to these three groups were compared over the 37 weeks following the raid and the equivalent period a year earlier.

The proportion of babies weighing less than 2,500 grams (5.5 pounds) among white mothers declined over this period, in line with a long-term improvement. However, both foreign-born and American-born Latinas had a statistically significant increase in the proportion of their children who were underweight, by 24 and 21 percent respectively.


The results were published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Novak and her co-authors sought other changes that might explain the difference, but found nothing. Indeed, a fairly dramatic drop in smoking among US-born Latina mothers should have reduced the number of low birth-weight children.

The global financial crisis started during the study period, but Novak told IFLScience this does not appear to have been the responsible factor. “If you expect the financial crisis to affect birth outcomes among more vulnerable people – perhaps immigrants, Latinos, and also non-Latino White low-wage earners – you might see some change in low birth weight among White mothers with lower levels of education,” she said. This didn't happen.

The study could not determine why women who were not personally at risk of deportation experienced so much extra stress that it affected their babies' health. In particular, if stress is indeed the reason for the low birth-weight children, it is unclear if the mothers were frightened for themselves or worried for a community with which they identified. Novak is undertaking qualitative research to try to answer this question.

Novak told IFLScience: “There is definitely evidence that people feared follow-up immigration raids and racialized immigration enforcement.” So far, no work has been done on birth weights by race in other states, either at the same time or following other raids, which might support or undermine Novak's claims.


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  • low birthweight,

  • communal stress,

  • deportation,

  • racial profiling