A 2014 article published by the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism tells the story of eleven year old Fanta Fofana, a Senegalese-American child from the Bronx, who woke up to Immigration Customs Enforcement in her apartment. In the midst of chaos and commotion, her father was detained. Fofana, and her five siblings – all US citizens – witnessed her father being taken from her, struggling to understand why it happened. Eventually, Fofana’s father was deported back to Senegal. When she retold the story, Fofana stated that everything happened suddenly: she and her siblings had lost their father, and her mother lost her husband. The trauma from seeing this happen carried over and has continued to affect all aspects of Fofana’s life. She stated: “I feel left out… When my friends talk about their parents, I’d end up crying by myself.”
Mental health is something that is often ignored in the context surrounding immigration laws, executive orders, and deportation. When we read news articles about families being separated, it is hard to understand the emotions, trauma, and anxiety caused when families are separated. Luis Zayas Ph.D, author of “Forgotten Citizens: Deportation, Children, and the Making of American Exiles and Orphans” studied US citizen-children of undocumented parents. His research stated that:
“Children realized that their own belonging was irrevocably tied to their parents’ illegality and deportability, generating a sense of not belonging. The family unit was now broken. This led to the third theme, the sense of exclusion from citizenship, community and place, and family.”
Zaya’s research also illustrated the devastating psychological effects of deportation and the toll it takes on children’s mental and emotional health, concluding stating that children demonstrated extremely high levels of anxiety, including separation anxiety disorder:
“Children who moved to Mexico with their deported parents reported symptoms of depression and emotional problems and described more physical symptoms than children whose undocumented parents were not in deportation proceedings. Children whose parents were detained or deported (whether the child returned to Mexico or stayed in the U.S.) were more likely to report depressive symptoms, negative mood, physical symptoms and negative self-esteem.” (Zayas, 2016).
According to the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), more than 5 million citizen children live in homes with undocumented parents, and another 1.1 million children are undocumented themselves. Many children who have parents who are undocumented, or are undocumented themselves, face mental and emotional health disorder risks. The CMS also states that, “the lingering possibility of deportation of parents leaves children with constant anxiety and vigilance about the potential becoming real” and that “undocumented students face particular struggles as they move up the educational ladder… Some leave school…” Since undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid, one of the key measures that makes access to higher education possible, opportunities to pursue higher education are extremely restricted, regardless of merit.
In a time where families are being torn apart, understanding the impacts trauma has on mental health of children and families in our community is essential in challenging current immigration policies that separate families. Additionally, professionals in various fields, including social work, health care, and education, can be more informed and engaged in supporting undocumented parents and their children. We must find a way to support children, regardless of their citizenship status, and use the resources accessible to us to best inform ourselves and others. We must engage within our community, and act in ways that validate and encourage children’s mental health and emotional experiences. Knowing the harm deportations cause to children living in the United States, including both citizens and undocumented children, immigration policies should allow for more discretion to support families staying together.