Skip to main content.

Immigrant health: What keeps people healthy or wears them down?

A special series by the Reporting on Health Collaborative

About This Series

Many immigrants feel isolated in America – suffering that can turn toxic over time.

Six news outlets joined together as the Center for Health Journalism Collaborative to highlight the interplay between immigration status and health. The USC Annenberg project involves Mundo Hispánico (Atlanta), New America Media (California and New York), Radio Bilingüe (Fresno and Washington), WESA Pittsburgh, Univision Los Angeles and Univision Arizona.

Immigrant health: What keeps people healthy or wears them down?

Arlene Geronimus, a scholar at the University of Michigan, coined the word “weathering” to describe how discrimination can literally wear people down, causing premature aging among African Americans. It shortens lives, she argues, and creates the underlying conditions for ill health and chronic disease.

Similarly, the refugee experience -- trauma, war and genocide -- erodes the health of those who settle here. Stresses multiply when refugees must contend with the wounds of the past along with the complexities of life in America. Fear also exacts a heavy price -- degrading the everyday lives of those in America illegally.

Six news outlets across America have joined together as the Reporting on Health Collaborative to address such questions. All the reporters in the project, an initiative of our USC Annenberg program, participated in either our National or California Health Journalism Fellowship. Each came to our intensive training institute with the idea of bringing to light key aspects of the immigrant health experience.

We think it’s no coincidence that reporters and editors around the country felt a common sense of urgency around these stories. We asked them to join forces to help connect the dots and to help others in policy and community circles to see the connections too.    

Our bilingual Living in the Shadows series explores when health care systems meet the need of the country’s growing immigrant population and when they fail them. We look at how tradition and culture play a role in health outcomes. Other stories shed light on how detention and deportation affect the health of the families caught in authorities’ net.   The health of immigrants has been shown to deteriorate over time. Does disadvantage make them sick? Or, are some immigrants less healthy than they seem when they first arrive? And what are the implications of these questions given that Obamacare excludes undocumented immigrants from the health reform effort sweeping the nation

These aren’t academic questions. Two thirds of America’s population growth between 1995 and 2050 stems from immigration, one recent study found. The health of immigrants increasingly will define the health of America.


Thirty years ago, Fresno County was obligated to provide care to everyone who needed it, regardless of their immigration status. Now a judge has determined that the county no longer has to offer them medical services.

While children show different responses to early trauma, depending on factors such as their age, coping mechanisms, and family support, experts say that research shows that witnessing a parent's arrest or deportation leads to a complex series of problems.

Exhausted from the burden of her age and diabetes, Juana now pays more attention to the news. She recently learned of a California proposal to offer health insurance to people who are undocumented.

A Mexican-American woman decided to convert her house into a health insurance registration center. She invited her family and neighbors, most of them uninsured. Could this be a model strategy to sign up more Latinos?

All California counties have to offer a minimum of free or very low-cost health services to uninsured, low-income residents who do not qualify for subsidized health insurance and cannot pay for private insurance. But one county is trying to change this.

The consequences of separating parents from children can include causing or exacerbating mental health problems such as depressive or anxiety disorders.

In 2014, fellows Alonso Yáñez and Annabelle Sedano collaborated on a project highlighting shortcomings in detention facilities for undocumented immigrants operated by for-profit companies. As Obama reconsiders outsourcing detention centers, this project offers early warnings of problems to come.

Fatal errors and lack of adequate medical care in immigration detention centers bring suffering to detainees and their families.

As many as 1 in 4 of those detained have chronic medical conditions. Medical neglect can lead to deteriorated health and, in Fernando Dominguez Valdivia's case, death.

A Mexican father is released from detention thanks to a psychological evaluation used as evidence in court.