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How Crackdowns on Immigrants Leave a Psychological Toll

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At the Huffington Post this week is the story of Norma, a Texas Dreamer who was brought to the U.S. when she was three years old, who married her high school sweetheart and was ten days away from becoming a U.S. citizen — when she had a breakdown, was arrested, and put on suicide watch. Her diagnosis? Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the United States.

She’s far from the only one. As the Huffington Post notes:

Between the 11 million people currently living in the U.S. without legal immigration status and the roughly 5 million U.S. citizen children with at least one undocumented parent ― not to mention the adult citizens with undocumented loved ones ― nearly 1 in 20 people in the U.S. could be at risk for mental health problems related to immigration status.

History has shown that strictly enforcing immigration laws leads to adverse immigrant health outcomesPsychological stress, anxiety and depression may be growing among immigrant populations considering Trump’s crackdown on communities, and — in a double whammy — immigrants may be less likely to seek treatment due to fear of authorities and institutions including hospitals. This may be leading toward a mental health epidemic that experts are only beginning to recognize. Below, we discuss this epidemic’s effects on U.S. born children. Please also read our post here for how Trump’s immigration crackdown and the uncertainty over DACA has affected the mental health of Dreamers.

Immigration enforcement’s mental health toll on children

Will they take me, too?” an 8-year-old daughter asked her mother upon learning her father had been detained for not having his “papeles” – his immigration papers. Children are also affected by the same stressors of their undocumented immigrant parents.

U.S. citizen children of undocumented parents also suffer from clinical levels of depression, separation anxiety, and low self-esteem, says Luis H. Zayas, a psychologist and the dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. The fear and threat of deportation can have a devastating impact, plunging children into a state of constant dread and hypervigilance, writes Joanna Dreby, a sociologist at the University of Albany. Hypervigilance, as explained by the Huffington Post, is what led Norma to develop anxiety and depression as she endured the day-to-day struggle of being undocumented and constant fear of her parents’ deportation.

About 5.1 million children in the United States have an undocumented parent, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). Nearly 80 percent of those children are U.S. citizens. As many as a quarter of the people deported from the interior of the United States are parents of American children, says MPI demographer Randy Capps. According to a 2011 report, about 5,100 children in 22 states in a single year were placed into foster care after their parents were deported.

A Kaiser study on health care and immigrants also found that children in “mixed status” families face the risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues as their parents’ fears increase. More than 8 million U.S. citizens live with at least one undocumented family member according to the Center for American Progress. When parents are deported, research shows children go through multiple negative experiences: psychological trauma (especially if they witness a parent’s arrest), and housing insecurity and economic instability issues after their family is separated.

Trump’s terrorizing deportation crackdown stands to damage a generation of American children. This vulnerability can interfere with healthy childhood development and children’s future success, states CAP research:

Being separated from a parent or caregiver—or even the idea of a separation—exposes young children to stress and trauma. In extreme cases, children may be present during immigration raids, where armed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents may burst into a home and forcibly remove parents. Children who have been separated from their parents frequently show signs of trauma, including anxiety, depression, frequent crying, disrupted eating and sleeping, and difficulties in school. Many young children also have a misunderstanding of legal status in general, often equating being an immigrant with being unauthorized. These children may believe that they or their authorized relatives are also in danger of being deported, further escalating their fear.

Increasing their worries, immigrants and children are also becoming targets of heightened racism and discrimination according to research by the Center for American Progress. In addition, distrust of public institutions — because those institutions have become discriminatory against immigrants — can also adversely affect children’s health, food security, and access to early education.

Anxiety of Dreamer parents and their children

Many Dreamers are also parents to U.S. born children. The DACA status of Dreamer parents has for the last five years been a relieving factor for immigrant families and children — but that relief is threatened now that the status of Dreamers is uncertain.

Researchers found that mothers’ DACA eligibility significantly decreased adjustment and anxiety disorder diagnoses among their children.

“We found that before DACA was implemented, the rates of mental health diagnosis were exactly the same; but in the post-DACA period, mothers started to benefit from protection and the rates of adjustment and anxiety disorders dropped by half,” said Jens Hainmueller, Ph.D., professor of political science at Stanford and co-director of the Stanford Immigration Policy Lab.       

2016 data from the U.S. National Health Interview survey showed that 40 percent of those eligible for DACA reported improvements to their mental health after the program began.

It’s clear that anti-immigrant crackdowns are harmful to the mental health of immigrants and their children, including U.S. born children. This stress can be alleviated by programs like DACA — but not when there continues to be uncertainty over the future of DACA.

Read more here about the mental health consequences of being undocumented for Dreamers.