In a first of its kind study, psychology researchers at the University of Houston are investigating how the trauma experienced by migrants before and during the journey to the United States affects their mental and physical health.
The researchers will collect data at various stages of the migration experience of 400 undocumented adults from Latin America seeking asylum in the US, with the goal of understanding how trauma during this process leads to inflammatory responses in the body; systemic inflammation is associated not only with mental illness but also with obesity, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and other conditions that can cause death.
Amanda Venta, an associate professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, received a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities to lead the study.
“This study arose from clinical observations where we looked at many diseases at the time of migration,” Venta said. “We are trying to understand the toll that these tremendous migration experiences take not only on the mind but also on the body, recognizing that this is a hardship that includes walking too much, hunger, lack of water, and psychological terror.”
The number of migrants crossing from Mexico has reached historic proportions. US authorities made more than two million first-time immigrant arrests along the southern border in the past year.
The Sales team will incorporate state-of-the-art biomarkers and qualitative and quantitative methods to provide new information on the mechanisms underlying health risk in Latin American migrants. The researchers will investigate inflammatory markers such as interleukin-6 and interleukin-10, which are proteins secreted by white blood cells to regulate the immune system, and the role they play in the body’s inflammatory response.
Psychologists from Rice University and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, as well as biologists from Northwestern University, will work with the team to assess how inflammation contributes to poor health outcomes in migrants.
“By measuring inflammatory biomarkers in this study, we hope to establish connections between inflammation, trauma exposure, and post-traumatic distress in first-time Latino immigrants,” Venta said.
In addition, the Sales team will identify factors within the social, personal, and cultural environments of study subjects and will examine how these factors affect inflammatory responses and well-being.
Participants will be recruited from migrant camps and shelters on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Venta said follow-up data will be collected a year later, by which time the entire study sample is expected to be in the US awaiting further immigration court hearings. They will be contacted to follow up via email, phone or even WhatsApp, a social messaging app.
Venta and her colleagues believe their work will present scientific evidence that a variety of factors influence the health of vulnerable populations, and their findings could help policymakers reduce existing disparities.
This investigation is also personal to Venta, who is Latina. Although she was born in the United States, her parents and grandparents are immigrants.
“I believe that anything the scientific community can do to bring attention to the needs and resilience of the Latino immigrant community is an important responsibility. We have to do our part to recognize the ways in which immigration policies and experiences are changing. hurting immigrants, so we can try to solve those problems in the future.”