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Norma’s Story: Fear of Deportation Can Have Lasting Psychological Impacts

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Austin, TX –  In a new piece, Roque Planas of HuffPost outlines the journey through anxiety, depression, PTSD–and towards recovery–of Norma Herrera, a formerly undocumented immigrant living in Texas.

Growing up with the fear that she or her parents could be deported at any moment profoundly affected Norma’s mental health.  Even after she became a legal permanent resident, she still struggled with the effects of this trauma.

Planas’ treatment of this subject is delicate and illuminating.  It’s also important to note that Norma’s experience is not, in fact, isolated or unusual.  As Nayeli Chavez-Dueñas, PhD, associate professor at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, described it: “the implications for mental health are closely tied to [immigrants’] legal status.”

Even the American-born children of undocumented immigrants are dealing with long-term mental health problems given the aggressive deportation policy pursued by their own government, and the primary role that parents’ play in their development and well-being.

On the reverse, taking away or reducing the constant fear of deportation can have a positive effect.  Last year, the University of California published a groundbreaking study that found that the mental health of DACA recipients improved after entering the program.

Mario Carrillo, Director of America’s Voice Texas, said:

It’s incredibly courageous for Norma to share her story and bring to light the fear and trauma that exists for so many people within our nation. It’s stories like Norma’s that I hope will help others realize that being undocumented in the U.S. affects the mental well-being of not only those who are undocumented, but families and loved ones as well. We must do more to ensure that everyone in the undocumented community has the support they need to combat the terror and fear that our immigration system inflicts on millions of people.

Below is an excerpt from the HuffPost piece from Roque Planas. Find the piece in its entirety here.

 For as long as she could remember, Norma Herrera had trouble getting to sleep. Hours after the rest of her family had closed their eyes, she’d stay up in her darkened room, praying. When she finally slept, she often dreamt the same dream. Men dressed in black suits entered the home her family rented in a South Texas town and dragged her father away by his feet.

As Norma grew older, the nightmare changed. Sometimes the men in black chased her, too. Other times, she sensed a presence she couldn’t see. But she knew it was coming after her and she needed to run.

The fears that haunted Norma’s dreams spilled into her waking life. The image of her father being abducted popped up during job interviews. Paralyzing anxiety choked her when it came time to speak in public. Benign interactions with work colleagues left her feeling scared for her safety.

By early 2016, Norma, then 28, had started bringing up her fears with friends and family. One evening that February, she sat down with two good friends on the patio of an East Austin bar. Over Lone Stars and food from a nearby street truck, she told them she worried something wasn’t right in her head. The confession drew confused responses: She was young, had earned a master’s degree, was bringing in decent money, her friends argued. And after having lived most of her life as an undocumented immigrant, she was 10 days away from taking the oath of U.S. citizenship. Maybe she was complaining too much, she thought to herself. Eventually she dropped the subject.

But as Norma got into her car to leave the bar, her mind spun out of control. It was as if someone had thrown a firecracker into her brain, leaving her unable to think. She didn’t know what was wrong. She only knew she had to get to a hospital. She drove two and a half miles up the highway to St. David’s Medical Center, went inside to seek help, and then, panicked and confused, fled back to her car. A few minutes later, a police officer pulled Norma over.

She was relieved when she saw the blue and red lights. She stopped in an Applebee’s parking lot, jumped out of the car and ran toward the officer, pleading for help. This startled the officer, who ordered her to get back in the car and wait for him to speak to her.

He asked her to hand over her license and registration. He smelled beer on her breath. Norma kept insisting she needed medical attention. She admitted drinking a few beers before getting behind the wheel, but told the officer she’d just come from the hospital. He kept asking for her ID.

Swinging between tears and rage, she threw her purse, with her ID inside, on the ground — and then got out of the car to pick it up. According to the officer’s report, Norma lay “on the ground and threw her shoes away from her” and “curled up on the ground yelling and rocking herself.”

Then, she asked the officer whether he had his gun.

“Can you shoot me with it?” Norma said. When he refused, she charged at him with her hands raised. The officer grabbed her by the right wrist, handcuffed her and loaded her in the back of his car.

Instead of finding solace in a hospital bed, Norma ended up on suicide watch in Travis County Jail, facing a criminal charge.

But at least she would find out what was going on inside her brain.