For undocumented immigrants, our enforcement policies drive a public mental health crisis

Josue De Luna Navarro, Opinion contributor

One winter afternoon, as we stood at the corner waiting to cross the street, my friend turned to me and said he wished he'd get run over by a car. It would make everything he worried about go away.

It was 2017, less than a month into the new Trump administration, yet it had already signed executive orders to increase border security, empower ruthless Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and ban millions of people in Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the United States.

Immigrant families, and especially undocumented immigrants like my friend, were suddenly living with more fear and uncertainty than ever. 

Things have hardly gotten any better since then. More than 5,400 children have been separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border since July 2017. And every day seems to bring out heartbreaking stories of people who’ve lived here for years or decades being torn from their families and communities. 

Trump even tried to terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protects nearly 700,000 people from deportation. Only the courts and the collective power of undocumented organizers have delayed him — and even that could change if the Supreme Court upholds the administration's efforts to kill the program. The court hears oral arguments on the efforts to end the program Tuesday.

Each day triggers flight-or-fight 

Imagine running away from a lion all your life — that's how an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States feel today. And as my friend’s agony shows, it takes a toll.

Biologically speaking, the fight-or-flight response in your nervous system doesn’t distinguish a lion from an ICE agent — it will turn on regardless of who the perceived predator is. Living in constant fight-or-flight mode can lead to high blood pressure and contribute to anxiety, depression and addiction. 

Congress must enforce immigration law: My son was murdered by an illegal immigrant. Neither he nor Mollie Tibbetts deserved to die.

As Karla Cornejo Villavicencio put it in a column for The New York Times: “Undocumented life in America is hard on the mind and body.” And the stories proving it are piling up.

A 21-year-old DACA recipient who spoke anonymously to Vice said she lies awake until 5 a.m. worrying about her family being separated. She said she had put on weight from stress-eating and even developed pneumonia. She’s hardly alone. “A recent study of Latinas in the Salinas Valley, California, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine,” Vice noted, “found an association between worrying about deportation and multiple risk factors for heart disease.” 

The effects are even worse for those unlucky enough to experience immigration detention. 

Protesters outside a detention center in 2018 in Los Angeles.

A recent report by Congress' bipartisan Commission on Civil Rights warned the Trump administration that the severe trauma caused by the incarceration of children and families, the separation of children from their parents, unsanitary conditions in detention facilities, and inhumane practices like solitary confinement are all proven to increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression in the immigrants who face these challenges.

Immigration enforcement authorities aren’t the only source of stress, either.

Not detained, but still under pressure

As part of the New Mexico Dream Team, an immigrant rights group, I co-authored two reports discussing how both educational and health care institutions come with barriers that can contribute to the mental health crises immigrants experience. 

According to a Department of Education report published in 2015, approximately 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools every year, and only 5-10% of those students pursue higher education. 

In our interviews with more than a dozen people in our state who identified as undocumented, DACA-mented, or who belong to a mixed immigration status family, we found that racial microaggressions, discriminatory practices by school administrators and concern over how to afford higher education (especially without scholarships or help navigating the system) increased their mental health stress

My life is more than a bargaining chip: I nearly lost my job because of Trump's turn on DACA. 'Dreamers' can't keep living in limbo.

When it comes to health care, our interviews found that those who are undocumented, DACA-mented, or belong to a mixed immigration status family faced a different sort of “wall” blocking the care they needed — a lack of access to health insurance and a fear of exposing their immigration status to hospitals. 

This mirrors national trends. Doctors report that often, undocumented patients admitted to the hospital fear revealing too much identifiable information. And according to a 2017 report by The Kaiser Family Foundation, 41% of undocumented immigrants are uninsured and are ineligible for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. 

New Mexico is a relatively immigrant-friendly state. I shudder to think of what it’s like for people in more hostile states.

Wherever undocumented families turn, they face the risk of severe damage to their overall well-being. That’s why anti-immigrant policies — and predatory agencies like ICE and Customs and Border Protection — need to be treated like the public health issue they are.

Thankfully, community-based health clinics and undocumented-led grassroots initiatives like the New Mexico Dream Team’s UndocuHealth program are serving undocumented youth, who are unable to access more formal mental health services because of their status, through natural and indigenous healing techniques. But there’s only so much they can do on their own.

Living in constant fear of deportation isn’t a life anyone deserves. What we actually need is for Congress to eradicate the virus causing all this despair — by abolishing the systems and structures that allow undocumented families and individuals to be persecuted in the first place.

Josue De Luna Navarro is the New Mexico Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is a co-founder of the New Mexico Dream Team and a former lead organizer for the UndocuHealth program for United We Dream. Follow him on Twitter: @Josue_DeLuna

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump's attack on DACA contributes to immigrant mental health crisis