Daniel Morales: A Look at the Mental Health of Undocumented People in America

Dan Pic

On November 25th 2011, an 18-year-old high school student from Mission, Texas, Joaquin Luna Jr., took his own life. Joaquin was brought to the United States from Mexico by his parents when he was a 6-month old infant. He had dreamed of becoming the first in his family to attend college, but after realizing that his immigration status would probably prevent him from being able to attend college, he gave up on life. His death sparked controversy and debate as well as a renewed effort by immigrants’ rights groups, community leaders, and experts in the fields of psychology to draw attention to the unique plight of the undocumented youth who call the United States of America home.

While the case of Joaquin is a tragic and extreme one, similar stories of students who were brought to the U.S. without authorization as children experiencing hopelessness and despair as a result of their status are surfacing in growing numbers across the country. There are today an estimated 2.1 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States. These young people face a particularly untenable legal circumstance, for which there are well-documented complex mental and psychological consequences. As many experts have observed, these students go through particularly confusing and contradictory experiences related to their feelings of belonging and rejection as they enter critical transitions from childhood to adolescence and adulthood. These students have a constitutionally guaranteed right to K-12 but cannot legally work to support themselves, vote, receive federal financial aid, nor drive in most states. They also have to endure the constant fear of being deported to their countries of birth, countries that many of these young people no longer remember.

Teachers, other school officials and often their parents tell these students that if they work hard in school, they can go to college. But given the legal limitations associated with their status, these words of encouragement can become a painful mistruth. Undocumented students are often blindsided by the implications of their status once they are already close to completing high school. The result of these crushing realizations is often devastating. As their peers begin the process of moving through important rites of passage—taking their first jobs, getting their driver’s licenses, and applying to college—their inability to join them sets them on a path of discovery which exposes them to a painfully exhaustive list of the barriers to employment and higher education. In addition to what one expert called “the onset of multiple exclusions” their path of discovery often induces feelings of fear, anxiety, uncertainty and guilt.

Due to a general lack of access to comprehensive counseling and psychological service, these negative emotions are often internalized by these youngsters and later manifest themselves in various ways that impact their daily lives. Indeed many of the factors that have been found to negatively impact immigrant’ mental health include pre- and post-migration traumas, acculturative stress, anxiety related to job-insecurity and the strains of low-wage work and experiences and perceptions of discrimination. Among undocumented immigrants, their status creates an additional layer of stress related to a lack of access to vital resources and constant fear. Such fears often lead them not to seek out the few affordable resources that are available to them.

Studies have consistently shown that undocumented students struggle with disproportionately high rates of stress, anxiety and depression. Studies have also shown that undocumented youth tend to begin experiencing the symptoms and consequences of these issues at a young age. The bulk of the research in this field consistently finds that these youngsters are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health outcomes. Therefore, any effort to combat these poor outcomes would necessitate a process of providing undocumented immigrants living in the United States with broader access to comprehensive mental health information and services. It will also necessitate efforts by those who support these youngsters (their family, churches, community organizations and colleges and universities) to provide them access to spaces where they feel safe. The creation and expansion of safe spaces, resources and a commitment to achieving policy changes that address the root causes of the inequalities, injustices and prejudices these students face are all necessary.

Gonzales, R., C. Suárez-Orozco & M. Dedios-Sanguineti. No Place to Belong: Contextualizing Concepts of Mental Health Among Undocumented Immigrant Youth in the United States. July 12, 2013.
2. Fortuna, L., M. Porche. Clinical Issues and Challenges in Treating Undocumented Immigrants. Psychiatric Times. August 15, 2013.