The American Psychological Association, or APA, released a statement on Aug. 31 expressing the importance of the protections offered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. The statement cited psychological research to highlight the unique stresses and long-term consequences of immigration experienced by Dreamers.
Five days later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the program was ending.
The APA’s concern is echoed by a growing awareness of mental health needs in the undocumented community. Students from the University Leadership Initiative, a group that works to empower and support undocumented immigrants, described the psychological challenges that these individuals face.
“We don’t know a single undocumented youth who does not feel some type of anxiety,” said Rebeca Hernandez, a UT-Austin student and University Leadership Initiative’s campus relations officer.
Ana Vidina Hernandez, a third-year masters student studying Latin American studies and social work, said that concern for undocumented family members and the “illegal” label itself can serve as additional stressors.
Undocumented immigrants have also reported struggling with feelings of isolation.
“It was very frustrating because no one around me — the school counselors, my friends, my mentors — they didn’t know what it meant to be undocumented,” Rebeca Hernandez said. “It just transferred into a lot of very, very severe anxiety and a lot of depression.”
Andrea Soto, a UT-Austin alumna and the University Leadership Initiative’s DACA co-lead, remembers the “almost painful identity” that resulted from being forced to keep her status a secret.
“I hated being an immigrant,” Soto said. “I hated being of a Mexican nationality. I hated that I wasn’t like everybody else … I was very closeted.”
Research shows that DACA has helped address some of these emotional and social stressors, improving the mental health of undocumented immigrants and their children. A study published in ScienceDirect states that receiving DACA reduced the chances of experiencing negative emotions and worry about self-deportation by 76–87 percent when compared to respondents without DACA.
A Harvard study found that undocumented immigrants who were eligible for DACA were 50 percent less likely to report symptoms of major depression than ineligible immigrants. Additionally, research conducted through Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab found a statistically significant difference in the rate of adjustment and anxiety disorders between children with DACA-eligible mothers and children with ineligible mothers.
With the recent changes to DACA legislation, there is rising concern that there will be an increase in the mental health challenges faced by undocumented individuals.
“Everyone experiences crisis and trauma individually … but I do think that we are seeing a lot of people who have been pushed into a crisis because of DACA being rescinded,” Ana Hernandez said. “We look at this from the point of view of toxic stress that can build up over time and literally engage the amygdala in a way that is not healthy.”
Ana Hernandez said that the president’s ambiguous tweets regarding the future of DACA are contributing to additional uncertainty and anxiety.
“This really brings our mental health back to where it was about this constant anxiety about what this means for us as students, us as youth, and what could this possibly mean for our parents, and the general climate around immigration,” Rebeca Hernandez said.
Despite the challenges imposed by changes to DACA legislation, the immigrant community at UT is determined to remain resilient and united, according to University Leadership Initiative members.
“We know from research that social support is the number one most important protective factor when it comes to mental health,” Ana Hernandez said. “That is how people are going to continue to survive and even thrive despite all of the barriers and challenges.”