Children of undocumented immigrants face anxiety over deportation and family separation

Nov 2, 2018

With stricter immigration policies in the United States, children of undocumented immigrants are worried about their families being separated due to deportation.

"You wake up every morning with that thought in your head: Maybe today's the day that our family could get split, or today's the day my parents or I could go to jail, or whatever. It’s pretty scary."

Carlos is 18. He came to this country when he was 4, from Mexico, with his mother and father. We aren't using his full name.

"Someone here, if their parents get thrown into jail, you could go with your grandparents, close family. We didn’t have anyone here. So I’d probably get sent back to Mexico."

Carlos and his mother currently have protected status, but he worries that could be taken away. The Trump administration has changed and rolled back policies designed to protect people without legal status.

Even naturalized citizens are not completely free from deportation anxiety.

Hady is 12. She was born in the U.S., but her parents are Mexican. She said she didn’t think about their status as undocumented immigrants until recently, when she heard about some of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda.

"A lot of people were talking about it at school, about, he's planning to deport Mexicans, doing something with the immigrants here in the U.S."

Hady said she didn’t think it was going to affect her life, but then her father was detained at a traffic stop, and he’s currently facing deportation proceedings. Hady said she now has trouble being out of the house, away from her family, even for school or soccer practice.

"I don't want to be apart from them too long," she said. "I’m just worried. They might be taken away from me when I’m at school, away from home. I’m just so worried about it. I just don't want them to leave me."

Such anxiety is not uncommon to people who are undocumented -- children and adults alike.

"There's a lot of fear in the community that people don't know who to trust. Even their neighbor could call immigration on them. And they know in their homes, they're safer."

Sally Espinosa is a mental health counselor with Finger Lakes Community Health. She works with immigrants and treats the mental health issues specific to this community.

"What we know about childhood trauma, too, is that it affects the way the brain works and develops, so kids are impacted academically, socially, economically and healthwise," Espinosa said. "Who they are is really affected."

Espinosa said even though they try to focus on treating these issues, sometimes it’s challenging because trauma is ongoing.

Julia is 18, and we’re not using her real name. She came from Mexico when she was 8 years old. She’s undocumented, and so are her brother and mother.

"Whenever we go to the store, my mom always takes me or my brother, and then she'll be like, talk quietly, or try and talk to me in English some words," she said.

Julia says it didn’t hit her that she was undocumented until her senior year of high school.

"That’s when it got worse because, I really want to show my mom that her hard work, her sacrifice of leaving us behind, was worth it. I want to graduate," she said. "So every time we would go out, I would be like, 'Please don't pull us over. I want to be able to graduate.' I wanted to be able to walk across the stage with my friends."

She did graduate. And now she’s going to college to be a teacher, even though she can’t get a job without legal status.

"We never know what could happen," Julia said. "And that's what my mom always says, we never know what could happen in the future, so we’ve got to be prepared."

Carlos and Hady are preparing, too. Both said they want to be in law enforcement. Carlos said he wants to help other Hispanic people; Hady said she just wants to do something totally unexpected of her.