By: Andrea Negrete
I was three years old when my parents made the difficult decision to leave family, friends, and our home in Mexico for the hopes of a better future in America. My father was the first to migrate and worked in the fields of California. Timing was on my father’s side because soon after the Reagan administration passed the amnesty of 1986, which qualified him for his green card. Several months later my mother joined my father while my three siblings and I stayed in Mexico to be looked after by our grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
A year later reunited in the United States, we settled in a small farming town in Eastern Washington where my parents made a living as farmworkers. For several years my father was the only one authorized to be in the United States. It was during those years when the mention of ICE or “La Migra” sent fear up and down my body. Whenever news of ICE raids spread, the common practice was to drop whatever you were doing and head home. I was raised to fear rather than trust the police and government agents. The fear of being deported was a reality. Fortunately, years after moving to the states my family and I were able to obtain legal status, which allowed us live freely in the United States. My story however is not unique. The fear of deportation and separation from family is a common occurrence among many immigrant youth and families.
Families migrate to the United States for many reasons including political persecution in their home country, war, famine and poverty. However, U.S. immigration policies make it very difficult for many of these families to obtain legal residency. As a consequence youth and their families are forced to live in the shadows. It is estimated that as of March 2010, there were 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, representing roughly 4.0% of the population. Many of the families who migrate to the U.S. bring their children with them. About 1 million are undocumented foreign-born children under the age of 18 .
A recent study looked at the transition from late adolescents to young adulthood of undocumented youth . Gonzalez (2011) interviewed 150 undocumented young adults and found that while growing up in the United States, many are unaware of their undocumented status. For the few that do find out as children, they do so without completely understanding the implications of what it means for their futures. It is not until they begin to transition to adulthood when a young person’s status becomes a barrier to participating in many of the same activities as their peers. For instance, undocumented youth are not able to legally work, vote, apply for financial aid or many private scholarships, and in many states, they are not able to obtain a driver’s license. Gonzalez found that ages 16 to 18 is when many undocumented youth go through the process of confronting their legal status. During this process of discovery, many youth reported feeling blocked because they lacked a social security number. Additionally they encountered feelings of exclusion from many activities that their peers were able to enjoy. Feelings of confusion, anger, frustration, despair and in some instances periods of paralyzed shock and fears of being found-out by their peers and teachers were common occurrences. The risk of deportation remained a constant threat. In many instances, undocumented youth lost their motivation for school and dropped out due to the uncertainty about their futures because of their status coupled with lack of support and poverty.
Several recent deportation cases of undocumented youth have highlighted the emotional and mental health struggles of these young people. One specific case is of Yanelli Hernandez Serrano who attempted suicide twice, once while being held by ICE. This led a national movement by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance to create Undocuhealth.org and a campaign that marked January 31 as Undocumented Mental Health Day. Undocuhealth.org is meant to be a resource for youth facing deportation and experiencing mental health issues.
On June 15, the Obama administration announced a new policy that grants undocumented youth temporary protection called “deferred action” for two years if they meet various criteria allowing those who are eligible to obtain work permits. It is estimated that 1.7 million undocumented immigrants will be eligible , 40 thousand of which are estimated to reside in Washington State. While this new policy gives hope to many undocumented youth, there is still no guarantee that this will result in permanent status or that it will eventually lead to citizenship. Nor will it keep families from being torn apart due to deportation, as the policy excludes those over the age of 31.
While it is uncertain what our nation’s immigration policies will look like in the future, one thing is for sure, immigrants will continue to play a significant role in our nation’s future. However, it is up to us how we choose to incorporate them into the fabric of our society. What can be done from a behavioral and mental health perspective to address the emotional and mental health issues experienced by undocumented youth? Unfortunately mental health studies rarely address the undocumented status of immigrant populations and the extent to which a persons’ documented status plays a role in their mental health. However, there is enough evidence to suggest that undocumented immigrants encounter challenges different from those of their documented counterparts such as guilt/shame, vulnerability to exploitation, constant fear and stress of being deported, which are experiences with the potential to impact their mental health . As mental health professionals, it is important to be aware of the unique challenges undocumented youth face and to become familiar with resources available to support these young people as they navigate what it means to be undocumented in order to provide targeted quality care.
 Pew Hispanic Center, 2010
 Gonzales, R. G. (August 01, 2011). Learning to be illegal: Undocumented youth and shifting legal contexts in the transition to adulthood. American Sociological Review, 76, 4, 602-619.
 Pew Hispanic Center (2012). “Up to 1.4 Million Unauthorized Immigrants Could Benefit from New Deportation Policy.” Washington, D.C.: August. http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/08/14/up-to-1-7-million-unauthorized-immigrant-youth-may-benefit-from-new-deportation-rules/
 Sullivan, M. M., & Rehm, R. (January 01, 2005). Mental health of undocumented Mexican immigrants: a review of the literature. Ans. Advances in Nursing Science, 28, 3.)