Mechanism Mapping: A Qualitative Study of how different forms of Instability Mediate the Relationship between Legal Status and Immigrant Mental Well-being

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Scholarship on undocumented immigrants has linked irregular forms of legal status to depressed mental health experiences and outcomes. The children of undocumented immigrants have also been shown to report mental health issues. More regular forms of legal status, like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), have been shown to improve psychological outcomes for migrants and their children. Though the relationship between legal status and mental well-being has appeared again and again in the literature, less work has explored the mechanisms through which legal status impacts mental well-being. This paper aims to help detail this link by drawing on 50 in-depth interviews with DACA-recipient and undocumented (DACA-ineligible) immigrants conducted from 2017 to 2018 (pre- and post-DACA rescindment). Thematic analysis identified three forms of instability (nation-state, residential and household) that mediate the influence of legal status on the mental well-being of immigrants and their families. Coping with nation-state, residential and household changes depleted immigrant's mental and emotional resources, hurting their mental well-being. More regular forms of legal status (like DACA) suppressed the occurrence of instability, bolstering the mental well-being reports of DACA-recipients compared to their undocumented counterparts. Yet the program's rescission in September 2017, spiked the threat of future instability for DACA-respondents leading their negative mental well-being reports to echo those of undocumented respondents. We propose that experiencing or even expecting these forms of instability to occur mediates the influence of legal status on mental well-being. Findings shed light on how legal status influences mental well-being and contribute to the immigrant mental health literature.