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How the Ongoing Crisis Over DACA Has Left a Toll on Dreamers

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At the Huffington Post this week is a story about Norma, a Dreamer who was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and PTSD after being undocumented in the U.S. for nearly her entire life. She’s far from the only immigrant who’s suffered adverse psychological consequences as a result of her status. Today on our blog, we published a summary of how crackdowns on immigration can harm the mental wellbeing of families and children, including those born in the U.S. And among Dreamers, Norma isn’t the only immigrant youth who has suffered as a result of the prolonged crisis over DACA, which Donald Trump started last September.

Last August, an 18-year-old DACA recipient walked into a California urgent care clinic experiencing a severe “ataque de nervios” ― a cultural term for a psychological syndrome similar to a nervous breakdown or a panic attack, reported the Houston Chronicle.

The weight of the world was upon this Dreamer’s shoulders: his father, the family’s main provider, had recently been deported, his mother was sick and despite working two jobs (thanks to his DACA work permit), he worried about not being able to afford college and also about being deported. Unable to focus at school or sleep well, he struggled with feeling fearful, sad, disappointed, anxious, worried, depressed, and hopeless.

DACA recipients paralyzed by fear by the March 5 termination deadline are also grappling with the potential loss of psychological relief the program brought to their lives. Data from the 2016 U.S. National Health Interview showed that 40 percent of those eligible for DACA reported improved mental health after its inception — but that progress is now in danger considering DACA’s precarious status.

Under the heavy stigma of “ni de aquí, ni de allá” ― neither from here, nor there ― Dreamers are especially vulnerable to psychological stress because of “self-identity conflicts,” according to Luz Garcini, a postdoctoral fellow at Rice University’s Department of Psychology. “They understand that, regardless of having an education and mastering the language, and almost being like their U.S. born counterparts, they are not. So they continue to be not second-class citizens, but third-class citizens.”

Recognizing the toll that unique stresses can create for immigrants, the American Psychological Association called on Trump to protect Dreamers. As APA President Antonio E. Puente, PhD said:

As psychologists, we are committed to policies that keep families together…We do not believe that it is safe or ethical to send young immigrants back to dangerous conditions that they or their parents fled.

Yale graduate student Karla Cornejo Villavicencio shared her view of the psychic toll of Trump’s DACA decision in The New York Times:

Undocumented life in America is hard on the mind and body. Poverty, precarious employment, poor access to health care, discrimination and trauma from the migration itself often lead to disorders like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Access to mental health treatment is scant, the demands of simply surviving are overwhelming, the fear of being discovered discourages people from seeking care, and the stigma of mental illness has perpetuated a culture of silence that only worsens the suffering.

Through Villavicencio’s graduate research interviewing dozens of undocumented people, she noted anxiety, depression, and PTSD, as well as immigrants’ acceptance of “chronic exhaustion, low self-esteem, fear and panic, low moods and fits of crying as normal for the melancholic migrant struggling to subsist without being arrested.”

Without DACA, Dreamers face the potential loss of their work permits, driver licenses, homes, health insurance, grants and student loans, scholarships, in-state tuition programs, post-graduate studies, and internships. For Dreamers facing serious or chronic conditions, the prospect of losing health coverage is especially alarming.

Without DACA, “I personally will not be able to attend college,” said Renata Aldaz, who arrived in the U.S. when she was three and is studying psychology at George Mason University. “I will lose my job. I will lose [being able] to support my family.”

Increasing mental health stresses among DACA recipients is the fear that federal immigration agencies will share personal identifying information found in their applications and use it for targeted deportation enforcement. A Dreamer’s uncertainty over the future of her DACA status can be torture.

As Harvard professor of education Roberto Gonzales noted:

Many of the young people I’ve been studying have shown physical and emotional manifestations of stress: chronic headaches, toothaches, ulcers, sleep problems, trouble getting out of bed in the morning, eating issues.

Garcini summarized the psychological distress burdening Dreamers and all undocumented immigrants by stating:

We’re talking about a very resilient population — a population that relies on their work, their spirituality, the social support of families, even though they might not be here, to deal with all this stress. It’s not that they’re a weak population, but the stress that they face is so much bigger that I doubt any of us could take it.

Garcini is currently conducting a confidential online survey through Proyecto Voces, a research project aimed at assessing the health needs of undocumented immigrants, to learn more about Dreamer’s mental health as related to current anti-immigration policies.