Facing the Fear of Deportation


Author: The MSW@USC, the Online master of social work program at the University of Southern California


Living under the perceived threat of detention and deportation is having harmful mental health effects on undocumented immigrants and the
ir families, according to Dr. Concepcion Barrio, associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

“It just creates an air of constant fear and being on edge,” she said. “They are afraid to go outside, to look out of place in a certain neighborhood, and to go out and seek a job.”

While the total number of deportations has continued to decrease under President Trump due to backlogged immigration courts and fewer people crossing the border, arrests of undocumented immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents rose about 43 percent in 2017, according to a report from The Washington Post External link . Between January and September, ICE arrested more than 28,000 noncriminal immigration violators — three times the number during the same period the previous year.

And children, who are undocumented or who have parents or caretakers who are undocumented, can be especially vulnerable to the mental health challenges of family separation, resulting in a number of harmful behavioral changes that can interrupt important childhood development.

“Imagine your family ripped apart. That’s going to have reverberations across family members for years to come,” added Dr. Barrio.

Although the current administration insists that it is prioritizing the removal of criminals, immigration advocates point to the growing number of arrests of noncriminal undocumented immigrants as a sign that those priorities no longer exist.

The Impact of Stress on Children

Among the noncriminal immigration violators are undocumented immigrants with children. From 2009-2013, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that more than 5 million children under 18 — 4.1 million of which were U.S. citizens — lived with an undocumented parent.

Information on the number of children whose parents are deported is scarce. However, MPI estimates that as many as 500,000 External link  deportees between 2009 and 2013 may have been parents, affecting roughly the same number of U.S.-citizen children.

Regardless of their documentation status, children with undocumented family members are not shielded from living under the constant fear that their loved ones may be taken from them without warning.

“When children are traumatized, that trauma is a pivotal moment in their life that's going to define how they see themselves — how they identify as a person of color, as an American, as a Mexican American, as a young person, as a student,” said Dr. Barrio.

“Just knowing that your parents are undocumented, even if they are not in the process of deportation, produces a state of persistent stress which has both physical, as well as psychological and emotional consequences,” said Dr. Barrio.

Children who live in a heightened or prolonged state of stress, sometimes called toxic stress, in their formative years without necessary adult care and intervention can overload External link  their stress response system, physically affecting brain functions such as learning and reasoning.

“The child's brain is still developing up to the age of 22, so they are very vulnerable to the biological processes that affect the brain during development,” said Barrio.

While she noted that academic performance tends to be the most measurable way to show the impact of this stress, she added that many families who she has encountered facing these situations also report mental health disorders.    

Many children with a detained or deported parent experience depression, anger and social isolation that can manifest in erratic physical and mental health behaviors External link , such as refusal to eat, self-harm, poor sleep, and chronic head and stomach pain, according to MPI External link . A survey conducted by Human Impact Partners External link  echoed these findings, reporting that youth with one or more undocumented parents often reported feeling withdrawn and angry — 29 percent and 46 percent, respectively — due to threats of detention or deportation.

The long-term impact of the trauma associated with deportation of a parent can also result in severe health and emotional issues for children like post-traumatic stress disorder, poor identity formation, difficulty forming relationships, distrust of institutions and authority figures, and behavioral and academic difficulties at school, notes the American Psychological Association. External link  (APA).

“When children are traumatized, that trauma is a pivotal moment in their life that's going to define how they see themselves — how they identify as a person of color, as an American, as a Mexican American, as a young person, as a student,” said Dr. Barrio.

In addition to these individual consequences, deportation can also cause deterioration of crucial familial relationships and a dissolution of the family network External link , which sometimes forces children into the foster care system. Often, families with undocumented immigrants must navigate these obstacles while also encountering discrimination External link , racism and racial profiling.