Living in the shadows can possibly lead to depression among the children of undocumented immigrants, say researchers. (Getty Images)
by Erika L. Sánchez
Silvia Rodriguez, 25, was born in Chihuahua and immigrated to Arizona with her parents when she was two years old. She says that for or the first 14 years, she was not fully aware of what it meant to be undocumented. “As time passed by, I found out that I had more and more disadvantages compared to my friends and people that I knew,” she says. “When it came time to apply for scholarships and financial aid, that was the moment it really, really hit me.”
Regardless, Rodriguez applied to Arizona State University and was accepted with scholarships that covered her tuition. But as a result of Proposition 300, Rodriguez became ineligible for in-state tuition or financial aid in the middle of her second year. “It was a really awful experience. I was so sad and depressed,” she says.
Despite this huge setback, Rodriguez was able to continue her education by fundraising and working with her professors who advocated for her. “It was such a miracle that I graduated,” she says.
But her problems didn’t end when she graduated. Rodriguez found herself unable to work because she lacked documentation. She said that there were times she didn’t even have a place to live. During this difficult period, she decided to apply to graduate school and was accepted to Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She was able to pay her tuition by applying to every scholarship available to her and by creating a fundraising campaign called Harvard, Si Se Puede! Rodriguez, now a conditional resident, is currently a doctoral student at the University of California Los Angeles where she’s studying the effects of immigration policy on children of undocumented families.
Despite all of her hardships, Rodriguez says she never felt resentful towards her documented siblings. “I knew that they had documents and I was really happy about that because I knew that they had more opportunities than I did. They could go to the dentist and get medical care take trips. I felt happy for them, but I kind of felt sad for me. It wasn’t resentment or anything like that. I just felt a little bit left out.”
Hirokazu Yoshikawa, the academic dean at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of “Immigrants Raising Citizens,” points out that the current debate almost completely ignores children. “Having a parent who lives in the shadows harms development from early childhood to adulthood,” he says. “The earliest effects are cognitive in early childhood and show as early as two or three years old.”
Yoshikawa says that emotional effects manifest in adolescence with depressive symptoms and higher rates of anxiety. Like Rodriguez, this may be when they realize educational opportunities are blocked and that there are legal barriers to employment.
Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, points out that parents’ good intentions for their children are often undermined by their legal status. “They are motivated to offer their children a better set of opportunities. Ironically, their own lack of documentation impedes access to a wide variety of services and support that children are entitled to,” he says. “It fundamentally creates a culture of fear. Taking the child to school or taking them to the store generates all sorts of mental calculations.”
In their study, “Growing Up in the Shadows,” Suarez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, and other authors point out that there is a lack of research on the psychosocial implications of growing up unauthorized or growing up in an unauthorized home. There has only been a recent awareness of this issue in the field of psychology.
Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, M.D., Ph.D., professor of clinical internal medicine and director of the center for reducing health disparities, is currently collaborating with lead researcher Luis Zayas, professor and dean of The University of Texas, Austin, School of Social Work, in a new study that examines the ways in which the deportation of undocumented Mexican migrants affects their American-born children.
Aguilar-Gaxiola says he was interested in the pilot study because he had been working with immigrant populations in Fresno, California. While treating the psychological problems of migrant workers who had been injured, he became sensitive to the issues that these families face.
Researchers of this study will be interviewing 80 U.S. citizen children with undocumented parents. The children will be between the ages of 10 and 12, half male and half female and belong to four different groups– children who accompanied their deported parents to Mexico, children who remained in the United States in the care of one parent after the other parent was deported, children who remained in the U.S. in the care of extended family or friends, and children whose immigrant parents have not been deported and are not in removal proceedings.
“The kids are at a key stage of development,” he says. “The single most important indicator of early onset mental illness and chronic health problems is the experience of childhood adversity.”
Aguilar-Gaxiola is hopeful that the study will shed new light on this issue and influence immigration policies. “There are 5 million children who live in a world where they lose, little by little, their right to have rights. They can’t fully flourish in the fears that their parents have,” he says. “We’re hoping that with these findings, the information is going to be helpful for legislators and enforcers of the law. It can give a better understanding of the unintended consequences immigration policies have on our children.”