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Opinion: The Children Of Undocumented Immigrants Live In An Emotional Prison

Every day they see news of immigration raids, or hear stories about peers whose parents were deported. They live knowing theirs could be next.

Posted on March 9, 2019, at 3:50 p.m. ET

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers arrest an undocumented Mexican immigrant in New York City.
John Moore / Getty Images

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officers arrest an undocumented Mexican immigrant in New York City.

Most ninth-grade children say goodbye to their parents in the morning without a second thought, knowing they’ll see them again when they get home. Not Carlos.*

Each day, Carlos says goodbye to his parents and wonders if, by the time he gets home, immigration officials will have ransacked his home and taken his parents away. Perhaps that casual goodbye will be the last words they ever say to each other in person. This is the plight of many children who have undocumented immigrants as parents.

As a 14-year-old boy growing up in New Jersey, Carlos appears to be a lot like his peers — he likes baseball, is well-liked by his classmates, and excels at schoolwork. But unlike many of his peers, his parents’ immigration status has shrouded him in uncertainty. He worries about them constantly, to the point where it interrupts his sleep, interferes with social activities, and causes him to isolate himself.

Extensive news coverage of migrants trying to cross the southern border has given most people a clear understanding of the extreme stress and anxiety a child feels when detained in a foreign country, separated from his or her caregiver.

What is less understood is the anxiety experienced by children like Carlos, a US-born child of undocumented parents. These children are American citizens. But one or both parents, who are undocumented, are living under the constant threat of deportation.

Carlos recently came to us for an evaluation to identify the hardships and mental health impacts he would likely suffer if his parents were forced to return to their native country. We found that he has nightmares of immigration raids, panic symptoms, and difficulty concentrating because of fear and lack of sleep. During a second session, Carlos told us he decided against joining his school’s baseball team because he’d rather go directly home and be with his parents.

“Just in case something happens,” he said.

As it turned out, however, his fear of deportation wasn’t the only reason. Increasingly, children like Carlos have another burden to bear: bullies who have been encouraged by the anti-immigrant attitudes at play in America since Donald Trump became president.

Carlos told us that “mean” children tell him that the president thinks all Mexicans should go back to their own country because they are criminals and rapists. At home, he hides in his bedroom to avoid TV news about the border wall the president wants to build. Another reason for Carlos avoiding the baseball team? Bullies who taunt him because of his heritage.

As mental health professionals working with children of undocumented parents in the New York Tri-State area, we have seen this situation play out again and again. But since the start of President Donald Trump’s highly publicized crackdown on illegal immigration, we’ve observed an alarming increase in levels of distress and anxiety among our patients. With the administration’s focus on immigration from Central America and Mexico, we’ve found that these symptoms are especially pronounced among Hispanic children.

According to the most recent estimates available from the Migration Policy Institute, 4.1 million US citizens under the age of 18 live with at least one undocumented parent. The majority of these undocumented individuals were born in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In the past ten years, we have evaluated hundreds of Hispanic children of undocumented parents for immigration proceedings. They often live their childhoods in abject terror, a sense further intensified by relentless school bullying.

While jeers and mockery can be ignored, the reality faced by undocumented immigrants cannot. Their children are confronted with almost daily news messages on TV and social media about immigration raids, or with stories about peers whose immigrant parents are arrested and deported. Not surprisingly, these children become extremely afraid that their parents could be next. They panic when they see people in uniform, cannot fall asleep until they’re assured their parents are home and safe, and have trouble concentrating at school. Many say they do not want to go to school, and if they do attend, they want to go home as soon school is out instead of playing sports, engaging in extracurricular activities, or socializing with friends.

Their fears are not without merit. Between 2011 and 2013, an estimated 500,000 US citizen children experienced the apprehension, detention, and deportation of at least one parent, according to the American Immigration Council. As deportations of those already living in the United States have increased significantly since President Trump took office, the number of children affected by parental deportation has increased too. Studies have shown that the cumulative effect of this day-to-day exposure to discrimination, coupled with an overwhelming fear of deportation, places Hispanic children at risk for emotional stress and social isolation.

They suffer in silence, not telling fellow students or school counselors about their anxiety for fear that sharing information about their parents’ undocumented status could lead to their deportation. At home, they may confide in their siblings or parents. But oftentimes they don’t, because they do not want to upset their family members and try to be a source of support instead. As a result, children feel alone and fearful but have no recourse.

The harmful emotional and mental health consequences of the mere threat of deportation leave millions of children like Carlos in a beleaguered state. They’ve spent their childhood in limbo, feeling as though their lives could change for the worse at the drop of a hat.

The public outcry that followed the forced separation of parents and children at the border last year was heartening. The ongoing concern for those currently in detention centers and shelters is also a start. But the public needs to realize that for every child held in one of those abhorrent lockups there are thousands more incarcerated in an invisible prison of fear.


*The patient’s name has been changed to protect the identity of the individual.


Elke Weesjes is an oral historian and associate at Paula A. Madrid & Associates, where she is involved in writing psychological evaluations for immigration proceedings, interviewing adults and children facing the psychological stress of immigration, and reporting on the conditions of countries where immigrant families may be deported.

Paula A. Madrid is a trauma expert and forensic psychologist who runs a private practice in New York City focusing on psychological evaluations of children and adults.

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