By Erica Hellerstein
Janet Magallanes remembers the first time she sat her children down and explained to them that their father, who is undocumented, could be deported.
“They were in a state of shock. Depressed and sad,” she says, sitting with her husband on a plush beige couch in their comfortable home in San Jose, Calif. “They said, ‘How is it possible that they could take daddy away at any moment?’ For us, it was tragic to explain. And for them, such an enormous problem to understand, in their little heads.”
Magallanes has long, honey-colored hair that’s freshly streaked, and a soft smile that brightens when talking about her youngest daughter, who flops around the house in light pink sandals and a floral-printed dress.
At age 17, her husband moved from to California from Mexico – over two decades ago — and has spent many of his most formative years on U.S. soil. In his spare time, he listens to NPR and likes to read – the bookshelf in their living room is stockpiled with English and Spanish titles, ranging from Life of Pi to The Secret of the Sierra Madre.
“If my husband left, it would be fatal,” Magallanes says. “If we want healthy communities, we need to have healthy children.”
According to a recent report published by the nonprofit public health organization Human Impact Partners (HIP), the anxiety and stress of having an undocumented parent can have profound and lasting consequences on children’s physical growth and development, sense of self, and ability to thrive in the classroom.
“They’re basically just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Lili Farhang, the co-director of HIP and one of the report’s authors. “So many of them are living in a heightened state of anxiety all the time.”
If her husband is deported, “our lives will change drastically,” Magallanes says. She speculates that the family will move to a smaller house in a shoddier neighborhood; too far away for the kids to continue attending the bilingual, “college-bound” charter school they’re currently enrolled in. Her children, she says, often beg their father not to drive –for fear he’ll be pulled over– and pray for him every night.
The persistent and lingering fear the Magallanes are subject to — that a loved one could be deported at any time — impacts the mental and physical health of families, as well as the economic vitality of the communities in which they live, according to the report.
“Deportation policy creates a climate of fear and paralysis in communities,” the report said. “People are afraid to drive, afraid to use parks and exercise outdoors, afraid to use public services like clinics, and afraid to get involved in their communities.”
In the past 15 years, over 600,000 U.S. citizen children been separated from one or both parents as a result of detention or deportation, with 150,000 in the past year alone, according to a report by the National Council of La Raza and the Urban Institute, Last year, the report said, the U.S. spent over $1.2 billion on deporting the parents of children who are U.S. citizens, most of whom are under age ten.
Another study – “Shattered Families,” a report by the Applied Research Center (ARC) – explores the intersection of immigration enforcement and the child welfare system. It found that there are roughly 5,100 children living in foster care whose parents have been detained or deported. It also noted that families are more likely to be separated in places where local police “aggressively participate in immigration enforcement,” further breeding the climate of fear and apprehension amongst immigrant communities.
According to HIP’s report, these children will likely suffer from the trauma they experienced for the rest of their lives.
Daniela, an undocumented immigrant with two daughters, described in the HIP report how her family reacted when her cousin was deported.
His children “were very badly traumatized when he left,” she said. “[The girls] didn’t understand why they had to take him away and why he left just like that. I observe that [one of them] is much different, very unsettled. She is “gone” for the reason that her father is gone . . . She was very happy, very attached to her father and now, she is not the same, no longer attached.”
The report speculates that if deportations remain at 2012 levels, children will have worse health and behavioral outcomes; adults will suffer from poorer health and shorter lifespan; and families will have higher rates of poverty and less access to food.
It also found that the partners of deportees are likely to experience poorer physical and mental health, and that undocumented parents are often reluctant or afraid to seek health care for themselves or their children.
Of the subjects interviewed for the report:
- Nearly 40 percent of children whose parents are undocumented did not see a doctor in the past year
- 29 percent of undocumented immigrants reported that their child felt afraid either all or most of the time over the past month
- 75 percent reported that a child had shown symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): repeated memories, thoughts or images of a stressful experience, feeling upset when something reminded them of a stressful experience; or being extremely alert or watchful.
Dr. Karen Hacker is the Senior Medical Director of Public and Community Health at Cambridge Health Alliance. While practicing at her clinic in Massachusetts, she often saw teenagers whose family members and friends had been, or were at risk of being, deported and/or detained.
During check-ups, some of her patients complained to her that they were anxious and couldn’t sleep. Others said that their hair had started to fall out and they were having bad dreams. As Hacker began to see more patients with similar symptoms, she realized that many were exposed to some form of toxic stress, wrought with anxiety about the deportation and detention of their loved ones.
Consistent exposure to high stress levels, she explained, can disrupt the development of the brain and impact the body’s ability to fight disease. Many of the symptoms her patients experienced are consistent with PTSD.
“This is a population of people that are living their lives in an environment where they just don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,” she said. “That makes it very difficult to plan for the future. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live like that. I was in one place where they compared the situation to Nazi Germany, where you don’t know when they’re going to knock on the door and take somebody away.”
This spring, Sen. Charles Schumer [D-NY] introduced its comprehensive immigration reform bill, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” (S.744).
HIP’s policy recommendations for S.744 “affirm aspects of the current immigration reform proposal that are health promoting,” but describes opportunities for the proposal to go further to promote the health and well being of families. It recommends immigration policy that puts family unity first, “most specifically by creating a roadmap to citizenship that may decrease the risk of detention and deportation for millions of individuals and their families.”
It also recommends that the Department of Homeland Security eliminate mandatory detention laws (which frequently result in the arbitrary detention of parents), and end the 287(g) Immigration Enforcement program, which enables local and state police to enforce federal immigration laws.
The 287 (g) program, according to a letter submitted by the ACLU to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano in 2012, has “caused damage to community trust in police, increased racial profiling, and wasted precious law enforcement resources at all levels of government.”
“Shattered Families” similarly recommends family-first policies, and that “federal, state and local governments must create explicit policies to protect families from separation.”
Farhang, who comes from an immigrant family, said that reports like HIP’s and Shattered Families help give a human face to immigration.
She also said the way mainstream media talks about immigration — “like it’s this faceless blob of 11 million people and we have no idea who they are “ – can be difficult for people to connect with. In reality, she said, “immigrants are kind of everywhere. They’re not some segment of society that nobody ever comes into contact with.”
Earlier this year, California’s ABC 7 News came in contact with the Magallanes’ second-grade daughter Janet Andrea, who had just spoken at a Sacramento-based immigration rally in Bakersfield.
“We need immigration reform for our family to stay together,” she said shyly into the microphone, summing up the lengthy policy statements of professionals in just a few words.
Erica Hellerstein is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and graduate student in Journalism at UC Berkeley.