Symposium Shines a Spotlight on Immigrant Health

Event assessed the impacts of status, stigma, and policy on the long-term health of immigrants and their children around the country

The inaugural “Symposium on Immigrant Health” was organized by the members of UCR’s Immigrant Health Research Collaborative (front row, from left to right: Brittany Morey, San Juanita García, Cecilia Ayón, Bruce Link, Ann Cheney, and Tanya Nieri).

More than 20 national scholars and community organizers gathered at UC Riverside on Friday, March 9, to explore the connections between immigration policy and health.

Co-coordinated by UCR’s Cecilia Ayón, an associate professor of public policy, and Tanya Nieri, an associate professor of sociology, the inaugural “Symposium on Immigrant Health: Structural Adversity, Resistance, and Resilience” drew over 100 attendees to the Alumni & Visitors Center for a wide-ranging series of keynote addresses, research and poster presentations, and faculty-moderated panels.

“It is our hope that the symposium helped to uplift the discourse on immigrant health and begin a dialogue on how we can better support our immigrant communities,” Nieri said of the event.

Opening keynote speaker William Vega kicked off the day’s proceedings with a discussion of the concept of the “Latino paradox” — a set of evidence-based findings that demonstrate Latino immigrants to the U.S. tend to have better overall health and lower mortality rates than their native-born counterparts — but noted the concept doesn’t always hold true for Latinos in later adulthood.

Vega, who spent eight years leading the University of Southern California’s Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging, named Alzheimer’s disease as a particularly critical health issue affecting aging Latino immigrant populations. Unless a major medical breakthrough cures or slows the progression of the disease, he explained, the number of Latinos impacted by it is expected to rise by 832 percent to hit 3.5 million people by 2060.

According to Vega, there needs to be more awareness in Latino communities about the disease and what can be done to prevent it through dietary improvements, physical activity, and even mental stimulation (since the better developed the brain is, the more successfully it’ll be able to withstand the neurodegenerative processes associated with Alzheimer’s disease).

Keynote speaker William Vega

Keynote speaker William Vega

“We need to think about how we’re going to develop a culture of health that envelopes us,” Vega said. “There are ways to manage our bodies so that we’re in control, but we have to do all of those things, not just one of them.”

Turning their attention to younger generations, other presenters highlighted the impacts of immigration policies on children.

Joanna Dreby, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany who studies the economic and emotional effects of detention and deportation on families, described the burden of deportation as disproportionately felt by women, many of whom become what she calls “suddenly single mothers” after their spouses are removed from the country. The result, she said, is a fractured family structure that often rests upon a foundation of financial instability.

“The pattern in the families I interviewed was that when a father returned to Mexico, he had a lot of trouble finding work, he couldn’t become economically solvent, and even if he did, his income usually wasn’t enough to send money back to the U.S.,” Dreby explained. “Once that economic relationship between fathers and children is undermined, an emotional one is so hard for people to keep from a distance.”

Most deportees are men, and many of them are parents of U.S.-citizen children. Following the deportation of a parent, children suffer a range of consequences, including higher levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, discrimination, and social isolation; poverty compounds all these problems, while a status of “undocumented” tends to make people less likely to seek medical intervention or treatment to address their own health issues or those of their children.

According to Ayón, hostile policy climates also contribute to higher stress levels. Her long-term research — conducted in Arizona, a state known for implementing some of the country’s harshest immigration policies — evaluates the experiences of immigrant parents of children between the ages of 7 and 12. Ayón has found that lower-income immigrant women report some of the highest levels of stress, often due to concerns about perceived threats to their family structures and their children’s vulnerability.

Keynote speaker Margarita Alegría

Keynote speaker Margarita Alegría

“I’m really concerned about what’s happening with children in the United States,” added Margarita Alegría, the event’s second keynote speaker. “Children today are not protected, and the impact of what’s happening with immigration is having a ripple effect on all kids.”

As a professor at Harvard Medical School and chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, Alegría has spent years studying health disparities in Greater Boston’s immigrant populations. She described contemporary American kids as the country’s most diverse group of children ever, but noted the emergence of skyrocketing levels of behavioral and mental health issues among young people is a striking cause for concern.

Characterizing the immigrant experience in the U.S. as one often marked by stigma, exclusion, and social isolation, Alegría said she believes social position, or what a person thinks of his or her value in society and how others perceive it, is “the big key to why people come to the U.S. healthier and leave sicker.”

“We need to do things for this population now — not in a few years, but now,” she added, emphasizing the importance of building communities and support systems for recent immigrants to the U.S.

Also participating in the event were UCR’s Ann Cheney and Andrew Subica, both assistant professors in the School of Medicine; Katheryn Rodriguez, a research project coordinator in the School of Medicine’s Center for Healthy Communities; San Juanita García, an assistant professor of sociology; Brittany Morey, a chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow in the School of Public Policy; and Bruce Link, a distinguished professor of public policy and sociology.

Visiting scholars and community organizers who delivered presentations included Jennaya Dunlap and Javier Hernandez of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice; Edward Vargas of Arizona State University; Lisseth Rojas-Flores of Fuller Theological Seminary; Alana LeBrón of UCI; Aracely Navarro of the Children’s Partnership; Annie Ro of UCI; R. Gabriela Barajas-Gonzalez of New York University; Dianey Murrillo and Mitzie Perez of the Inland Empire-Immigrant Youth Collective; Ana Abraído-Lanza of Columbia University; and Gilbert Gee of UCLA.

The event was co-sponsored by UCR’s School of Public Policy; One Health Center; Blum Initiative on Global and Regional Poverty; Center for Social Innovation; School of Medicine;  Center for Healthy Communities; College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Department of Ethnic Studies; Department of Sociology; Latin American Studies Program; and Office of the Provost.

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