Skip to content Skip to footer

For Families and Communities, Deportation Means Trauma

The psychological trauma of deportation is rarely examined in mainstream media coverage.

Border Patrol agents process a group of migrants from Honduras and Guatemala, mostly women and children, found walking near the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas, June 18, 2014. The Obama administration announced plans

Maru Mora-Villalpando lives in fear of deportation. As a community organizer for #Not1More Deportation and an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, her fears are not unfounded. Her nephew was deported in 2008; her cousin was deported in 2010 and she has seen countless other families separated. “I expect that to happen to me as well,” she said.

Mora-Villalpando says her 17-year-old daughter constantly worries that she will be deported, particularly because of her activism, which forces her to travel frequently. “We have to be in constant touch. This is how I protect her and lessen her stress that her mother can be taken at any moment,” she told Truthout.

Research shows this kind of fear can be profoundly detrimental for children. The study “The Children Left Behind: The Impact of Parental Deportation on Mental Health” notes the crucial role of parent-child relationships in social skills, emotion regulation and self-concept development. Another study, “The Burden of Deportation on Children in Mexican Immigrant Families,” based on interviews with 91 parents and 110 children in 80 households, found that the threat of deportation caused fears of separation among children. A report from the Urban Institute also found that that children whose parents were deported or detained experienced increased rates of crying, loss of appetite, clingy behavior, sleeplessness, fear and anxiety.

Lisseth Rojas-Flores, Ph.D., an associate professor of marriage and family therapy and licensed psychologist at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, is currently conducting a study funded by the Foundation for Child Development that assesses the impact of parental detention and deportation on Latino children who are US citizens, and assesses patterns in the use of health and psychological services. The study examines the children’s mental health, academic performance and overall functioning. As an immigrant from Colombia, Rojas-Flores is passionate about addressing and researching health disparities in immigrant populations.

“We don’t have many studies systematically documenting [the psychological effects of deportations] with standardized measures,” Rojas-Flores said. “There is some research documenting that children that are separated from their families are at risk of behavioral problems. We know from research that if a child sees his or her parent arrested, there’s a greater negative affect.” Some family members, she says, even develop post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Rojas-Flores recounted the story of a family of five she worked with. The three children witnessed the father’s arrest and then later visited him at the detention center. As a result of the turmoil, two of the children began developing behavior problems, and the other child began to experience anxiety and became increasingly withdrawn.

Part of the trauma, Rojas-Flores says, is also due to the financial burdens caused by deportations. Because the father was the breadwinner, the family was evicted from their home three times in one year. The mother lost her job because she had to look after her children and advocate for her husband. When he was released from detention six months later, he had lost his job as well.

When her cousin was deported, Mora-Villalpando says that he went from being a provider for his mother to becoming a burden because he was unable to find work in Mexico. She says that the loss of income puts a big strain on families. Most undocumented families depend on each other financially.

She points out that young Latino males are the ones who are most frequently deported, which means they have to leave their partners behind. According to Mora-Villalpando, these women feel guilty all the time because they don’t have money to provide for their families. “We don’t have access to health care and we [community organizers] don’t have the professional skills to deal with that. It’s very troublesome to see these families spiral down,” she said.

Catherine Wooddell, MSW, a behavioral health therapist, who has conducted individual and family psychotherapy with immigrant women, children, men and families, has seen the emotional damage of deportations firsthand. “There is often a trauma inherent in daily life under the constant threat of deportation,” Wooddell told Truthout in an email. “The activities involved in daily living, which the US-born often take for granted, can be profoundly anxiety-provoking for someone who is undocumented or whose family includes undocumented members. Immigrant families are facing constant discriminatory treatment, and for families with members vulnerable to the threat of deportation, each act of discrimination can trigger that fear.”

Wooddell says that mixed status families can experience severe anguish if siblings are separated.

“The separation is profoundly painful, and again, they are often unable to understand why they cannot be together,” Wooddell said. “This can be seen manifesting as grief with insomnia, nightmares, excessive crying, etc. As they grow older, they come to see the inequity between the conditions under which either sibling lives. This can foster feelings of guilt, similar to ‘survivor’s guilt,’ that can undermine successful coping and school performance.”

Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, M.D., Ph.D., director of University of California Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities and professor of Clinical Internal Medicine, agrees that the issue of mental distress among families affected by deportation has been understudied and underreported. “The magnitude of the problem is mind-boggling when we consider there are 2 million parents deported to Mexico leaving behind 400,000 US-born children,” he told Truthout. “This is not in the public consciousness in the US. It’s so easy to think about things in such simplistic terms. Putting a face on the issue can change public opinion.”

Aguilar-Gaxiola is currently conducting a study with Luis Zayas from the University of Texas in Austin, and Guillermina Natera Rey from the National Institute of Psychiatry (Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatria) of Mexico. Their study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, assesses the distress and psychosocial impact on children with detained or deported parents. They compare the psychological status of three groups: children living in Mexico with deported parents, children in the United States who have been affected by deportation or detention and stayed with other family, and citizen children living with undocumented parents. All the children were ages 8 to 15, right before the severe mental disorders began, he said. According to Aguilar-Gaxiola, this stage in life is characterized by developmental milestones in cognition, behaviors and mental processing.

Aguilar-Gaxiola says that research consistently shows that childhood adversities are the single most powerful predictor of health conditions and early-onset mental illness, such as anxiety, depression and psychological stress. “Children affected directly because parents were deported to Mexico or were detained in the US have significantly high somatic problems,” he said. He believes that unless deportations cease, they will continue affecting generations of children.

“What is at stake is the developmental trajectories of these kids,” Aguilar-Gaxiola said. “We know that these adversities are also very much related to poverty, neighborhood safety, access to food and lack of facilities to properly exercise.” He says families affected by deportations are in desperate need of access to appropriate health care and education.

“The neuropsychological effects of trauma can be passed from one generation to the next, carrying symptoms of anxiety and depression through multiple generations, affecting how and if the next generations will be able to cope with more routine stressors,” Wooddell said.

Rojas-Flores says many families don’t seek help because of fear and stigma. “Many are afraid for us to go to their homes,” she said. “We need to provide a venue and educate them about their rights so they’re able to seek the help. A lot of these kids are already at a disadvantage if parents are undocumented. They are often poor and living in poor neighborhoods.”

Mora-Villalpando feels the whole community is impacted on every level, which inevitably impacts its future. “There’s a constant fear of who’s going to be next,” she said. “We have met people outside of detention centers who have had two or three family members deported. There’s nothing wrong with us. We just happen to lack a piece of paper and we need access to mental health as well.”

Countdown is on: We have 6 days to raise $39,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.