Effects of deportation, forced separation extend beyond individuals, families

The deportation and forced separation of immigrant families crossing into the United States has psychological effects on individuals and families and gives rise to a public health crisis that can affect entire communities, according to a new report published in the American Journal of Community Psychology. The statement is from the Society for Community Research and Action of Division 27 of the American Psychological Association.

“We wanted to create a document that lawyers, community advocates, elected officials and others could use that summarizes the research on the impact of deportation and family separation of immigrants to support more humane policies and programs,” said Dana Rusch, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, and a co-author of the report.

The authors of the report looked at scientific literature from the last 30 years that examined U.S. immigration policy and described the psychosocial and economic impacts of deportation on children, families and communities.

They found that:

  • Children who lose a parent to sudden, forced deportation experience anxiety, anger, aggression, withdrawal, a heightened sense of fear, eating and sleeping disturbances, isolation, trauma and depression.
  • Children also experience housing instability, academic withdrawal and family dissolution. Older children often need to take on jobs to help support the family.
  • Ten percent of U.S. families with children have at least one family member who lacks citizenship.
  • Almost 6 million children have at least one caregiver who lacks the authorization to live in the country.
  • In the mid-1990s, there were approximately 180,000 deportations each year — a number that has since increased to 340,000 deportations in 2017.
  • Immigration raids and deportations generate fear and mistrust that have ripple effects. Fearful of being targeted, community members become less likely to participate in churches, schools, health clinics, cultural activities and social services.

“The fear, depression and trauma that children and parents experience when separated because of immigration policies are normal reactions to a very abnormal situation,” Rusch said of family separations that leave children without a parent, even if temporarily. “And the psychological effects of separation reverberate throughout the community for a long time.”

“Separating families and deporting adults has an incredible toll on youth and families,” says Yolanda Suarez-Balcazar, professor of occupational therapy in the UIC College of Applied Health Sciences and a co-author of the report. “These children are growing up without their parents and loved ones and are affected by psychological and social trauma, which can have life-long impacts. This is also inhumane and not consistent with our moral values.” Suarez-Balcazar is also president of the Society for Community Research and Action (Division 27 of the American Psychological Association).

Several mental health consequences unfold when immigrants are fearful of being targeted, including withdrawal from civic engagement, according to Rusch. They are also less likely to report abuse, seek medical or mental health treatment, or access other needed programs, she explained.

Rusch and her coauthors outline several national and local-level policy recommendations to alleviate suffering within communities and among U.S.-born children. Among the most important is calling for comprehensive immigration reform that would end the threat of deportation by providing permanent protection for 11 million people who lack the authorization to remain in the U.S. Their recommendations include:

  • Stopping the separation of families.
  • Modifying laws to allow extended family caregivers, such as grandparents, to qualify for exemption from deportation.
  • Taking a public health perspective on deportation, recognizing the direct and indirect impacts on community members.
  • Creating a human rights framework in U.S. immigration policy.
  • Local jurisdictions should declare themselves sanctuary cities to enhance the protection of unauthorized immigrants and their families, and they should not detain or deport people solely for immigration violations.
  • Local school districts should communicate with their communities and prioritize safety and inclusion for all immigrant families, including building a protocol for responding to federal immigration activity near schools and educating school personnel on the effects of immigration enforcement.
  • Schools, places of worship and community organizations must build supportive social networks that create a sense of belonging among families that are coping with the effects of deportation.

Regina Langhout, University of California at Santa Cruz; Sara L. Buckingham, University of Alaska Anchorage; Ashmeet Oberoi, University of Miami; Noé Chávez, City of Hope Medical Center and Francesca Esposito, Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada — Instituto Universitário are co-authors of the report.

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