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Children of Undocumented Immigrants Face Mental Health Crisis

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By Sheryl Estrada


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In the midst of continual debate between political parties on establishing effective immigration reform, little attention is given to the fact the mental health of thousands of Latino youth, born in the United States and whose parents are undocumented immigrants, is being compromised.

“Anxiety and PTSD in Latino Children of Immigrants: The INS Raid Connection to the Development of These Disorders,” is areport by Mara Elisa Cuadra, a licensed social worker and Executive Director/CEO, COPAY Inc., a bilingual professional out-patient treatment and prevention care facility located in Great Neck, N.Y.

She discusses the plight of Latino children and adolescents, born in the U.S., whose parents are foreign born, living in constant fear and terror of INS raids. And this fear is expressed verbally and behaviorally potentially leading to disorders.

“They take it to school with them daily, to bed with them every night, and it is constantly present in every interaction they have with others,” writes Cuadra, also an Adjunct Professor at Adelphi University. “The level of chronic stress and fear experienced is what anxiety disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are made of.”

The report resonated with Leticia Fraga who is Vice Chair of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF). For the past five years, she has worked full time as a volunteer at organizations, which give her access to Latino families of undocumented immigrants as well as families with mixed immigration status.

Parents have informed Fraga of behaviors including anxiety and withdrawal exhibited by their children. She has also heard from elementary school teachers who notice changes in behavior in students as well.

“I would hear about children suffering from nightmares, and going to the nurse on a regular basis complaining of tummy aches, headaches and having anxiety about being separated from their parents,” she told DiversityInc. “When I happened to read this paper on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I made the connection.”

A study published in the March issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior also highlights the behavior of children of undocumented parents.

“Behavioral Functioning among Mexican-origin Children:Does Parental Legal Status Matter”investigates how the legal status of immigrant parents shapes their children’s behavioral functioning.

The co-authors of the study are Jessica Halliday Hardie, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Hunter College; R.S. Oropesa, a Professor of Sociology and Demography and Marianne M. Hillemeier, a Professor of Health Policy and Administration and Demography, both at Pennsylvania State University.

The study analyzes data on 2,535 children ages 3 to 17 in the Los Angeles Family and Neighborhood Survey comprised of Mexican youth with undocumented mothers, documented or naturalized citizen mothers, and U.S.-born mothers. Fifty-nine percent of the children with undocumented mothers surveyed were U.S. citizens.

The way in which Mexican youth of undocumented parents internalize and externalize problems was analyzed, and their experience compared with other ethno-racial groups.

Researchers found problems that were internalized resulted in anxiety, fear or social withdrawal. While problems, which were externalized, led to issues such as demanding attention or aggressiveness toward others.

According to the authors:

Our findings reinforce the importance of differentiating children of immigrants by parental legal status in studying health and well-being. Children of undocumented Mexican migrants have significantly higher risks of internalizing and externalizing behavior problems than their counterparts with documented or naturalized citizen mothers. Regression results are inconsistent with simple explanations that emphasize group differences in socioeconomic status, maternal mental health, or family routines.”

In order to foster positive health and well being, the authors suggest open health clinics and schools as effective sites for screening for mental health problems, and providing culturally sensitive services for the child and family.

Fraga agrees that schools educating teachers and individuals who have direct contact with these students is an effective solution. However, she noted the most important solution is immigration reform.

As much as they try to shelter their children, parents have to make preparations, especially if it’s an unknown as to what is going to happen if there is no reform. What I think most people don’t realize is that these are mixed-status families, where even though the parents might not have legal status, their children are U.S. citizens. Whether there’s reform or not, these children have been affected negatively by inaction in the area of immigration reform. And it is something that will stay with them all of their lives.

Interview with Leticia Fraga, Vice Chair of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund:

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