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Fear of deportation causes children of undocumented to suffer more stress, anxiety and other health problems

Anna Challet

For Alicia Torres, a mother of four in Bellevue, Wash., one of the most difficult aspects of her husband’s undocumented status has been its effect on the health of their 13-year-old son.

Torres’ husband, who is a Mexican national, was detained in 2009 for over a month. He is currently awaiting a deportation hearing, which has been rescheduled several times.

Their son, who was born in the United States, has received special education services since he was very young due to ADHD and anxiety. But since his father was detained, he has started to struggle more in school — a result, Torres says, of his constant worry that he might lose his father.

“When police detained my husband, my son’s anxiety issues started increasing,” she says. Her son started having more behavioral problems at school. He had trouble focusing, following instructions and turning in his homework.

Earlier this month, Human Impact Partners (HIP), a non-profit public health research organization based in Oakland, Calif., released a study showing that in families with one or more undocumented parents, the threat of detention and deportation is harming the mental and physical health of their children, approximately 4.5 million of whom are U.S. citizens.

Many children of undocumented immigrants live with the constant fear that they could be separated from their parents, which the study says can cause severe stress that has long-term developmental consequences.

The study also found that some undocumented parents are afraid to access health care for themselves or their children, for fear of revealing their immigration status and risking deportation. U.S.-born children of undocumented parents are twice as likely as children of citizens to lack insurance or be otherwise unable to access medical care.

“We’re shining a light on health consequences that are rarely discussed in our immigration policy debate,” Lili Farhang, HIP’s co-director, said in a telebriefing last week.

In the past 15 years, more than 600,000 children who are U.S. citizens have experienced the deportation of a parent. HIP estimates that in the past year alone, more than 150,000 U.S.-citizen kids have been affected by deportation.

Dr. Karen Hacker, senior medical director of Public and Community Health at Cambridge Health Alliance, and the executive director of the Institute for Community Health, works with teens who have mixed-status families in the Boston area.

She said that the “toxic stress” associated with the deportation of a family member, or the fear of the deportation of a family member, can “disrupt [a child’s] developmental processes,” including brain and organ development, and can cause symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to HIP’s report, almost three-fourths of undocumented parents with children under the age of 18 reported that their children experienced symptoms of PTSD, including repetitive thoughts about stressful experiences, avoidance of certain activities, and hyper-alert behavior. Nearly 30 percent of undocumented parents reported that their children were afraid all or most of the time.

HIP also screened the children themselves. Eighty-five percent of the children of undocumented immigrants reported that they had experienced symptoms consistent with PTSD, compared to 57 percent of children whose parents are citizens.

The current Senate immigration reform bill includes some provisions that prioritize family unity and modify current law to make sure that immigration judges are given discretion to consider hardship to citizen or permanent resident children when deciding whether or not to deport a parent.

But many advocates believe that the current bill does not do enough to keep parents and children together. HIP’s report includes recommendations for promoting family-focused reform to a greater extent within the bill, including the elimination of mandatory detention.

Wendy Cervantes, vice president of Immigration and Child Rights Policy at First Focus, a child advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., points out that though the current bill “offers real promise,” it does not include the elimination of mandatory detention laws, which can result in the arbitrary detention of undocumented parents.

HIP also recommends that the Department of Homeland Security end the 287(g) program and modify the Secure Communities program, both programs that create partnerships between state and local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Initiatives like 287(g) can result in the targeting of individuals “who are not the focus of those kinds of laws,” according to Farhang, rather than those who pose a risk to public safety.

Farhang anticipates a “tough battle” ahead in protecting family unity and the health of children of undocumented immigrants, particularly in the House of Representatives, which is anticipated to take a harder line than the Senate in crafting legislation for comprehensive immigration reform.

“This debate can’t just be about getting reform done,” said Cervantes. “It also has to be about getting reform right for children.”

New America Media