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Tens of thousands of undocumented parents of US-citizen children are deported every year, and all mixed-status families live with this threat. What kind of emotional impact does (the threat of) parental deportation have on children?

My two kids are happily engaged in their origami crafts as I write this — about six meters away from me, across the room, one is making a frog while the other is working on a fighter plane. They don't need me right now, but I'm nearby, and once they're done with their crafts, they'll be able show me the results of their labors, and I'll be able to tell them they did a great job. When I'm finished with this article, we'll probably snuggle up on the couch to watch The Walking Dead.

A great many of us take some version of this — family life — for granted, but the folks who wrote the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, who had plenty of historical examples to go by, clearly didn't think every government would honor the basic needs of children. They spelled out that children have the right to live with their parent(s) unless this is unsafe for them, after all, and added that people should be allowed to move between countries for the purpose of family reunification. They also said that the rights enshrined in the convention should apply to all children, without exceptions on the basis of things like ethnic background, socioeconomic status, religious background, or their parents' marital status. [1]

Though you'll find children whose basic human rights, as defined by the UN, haven't been met all over the globe, only one country hasn't ratified the convention — the United States of America [2]. It is in this context that 31,411 parents of minor children who are US citizens were deported from the country in 2015, 28,860 in 2016, and 27,080 in 2017. Data for 2018 are not available yet, but a cursory glance at the news should be enough to tell us that the number of children being robbed of the right to live with a parent by means of deportation will certainly, once again, be in the tens of thousands. [3]

What kind of emotional impact does the deportation of a parent have on a child? What can we do to help, whether we're undocumented and living in fear of deportation ourselves, or we play some other role in the child's life — as the other parent, a relative, neighbor, teacher, or social worker, for instance?

How The Parental Deportation And The Threat Of It Impacts Children Emotionally

The American Psychological Association (AAP) reports that [4]:

  • US-citizen children whose parents are undocumented and under threat of deportation tend to be exposed to all sorts of stressors besides the threat of parental deportation — poverty, frequent moves, and witnessing friends, relatives, and neighbors being arrested, for instance. All of these stressors have a long-term negative impact on mental health. 
  • Although US-citizen children of undocumented immigrants have the right to healthcare, they visit doctors much less often than their peers with citizen parents. This is because undocumented parents fear that medical appointments will uncover their legal status and lead to their arrest and possible deportation. 
  • The very real prospect of their parents' deportation induces a constant state of stress and worry — and these children are raised with the burden of needing to keep their parents' secrets. 

By the time a parent is — and in some cases both parents are — actually deported, often after a long period of detention, these children have already been subjected to a very long list of stressors, in other words, all of which independently have a negative impact on their mental and physical health. Children who find themselves living apart from their parents because they've been deported or are in detention awaiting deportation suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety, and anger problems. Their academic performance suffers, and they struggle with identity formation as they wonder where they belong. [5, 6, 7

What can undocumented parents do to help children deal with their stress?

Everyone experiences stress — but constantly living in fear of deportation takes that to the next level. This kind of existential threat, one you can do almost nothing to influence, is going to stretch your own mental health to the limit. Undocumented parents don't just face the question of how much to tell their younger children about their situation, knowing that their children may say things to others that will ultimately place them in danger, but may also find themselves unable to be the kind of parent they'll ideally like to be. Undocumented parents of citizen children can [8]:

  • Commit to taking their self-care seriously — anything that destresses you even a little will also help you take better care of your children.
  • Maintain comforting routines — family meals, bedtime routines, game time, and homework schedules all help establish a sense of normalcy that makes people of all ages feel safer. The future is unpredictable, but you have some level of control over the present. Even if the worst happens, the loving care you give your children now, and the time you spend with them, will be valuable building blocks in their future, and yours too. Tomorrow is uncertain, but every good day is a gift.
  • You may decide to keep younger children away from frightening news stories relating to immigration, which will only add to their stress without changing the situation. 
  • Older children, who have already developed a deeper awareness of the situation, won't feel safer if you refuse to discuss the issues you are facing with them. Answer their questions plainly; reassure them where possible, but do not attempt to instill a false sense of safety. Discuss what your older children should do if you or they are detained in advance. 
  • Seek to create a strong social support network of people who care about your child(ren) and may help look after them in the event that you are detained. If you are separated, your child(ren) will be grateful to have familiar and safe people around.

What can those caring for children whose parent has been deported do to help?

Relatives, neighbors, teachers, social workers, and psychologists might all have contact with a child whose parent has (or parents have) been deported, and you can play a positive role in a child's life whether or not you are their legal guardian. This starts by understanding what the child is going through — and how they may express their feelings. We can learn a lot from research on how children generally deal with bereavement [9]:

  • Immediately after loss, children will of course feel sad, confused, angry, and frightened. They may find themselves unable to sleep, and children under five are likely to regress to an earlier stage of development for a while. Not all children will react in the way most people are likely to imagine, though. School-aged children, and especially boys, frequently express their sadness through aggression. Others become socially withdrawn or may, rather, keep busy by trying to take care of others. 
  • Higher rates of depression are seen in children even years after they experienced a loss. These children are more likely to face academic struggles and even to engage in delinquent behavior. 
Strong and supportive relationships with caregivers, having role models to look up to, and having a predictable, safe, routine are all factors that mitigate the potential long-term negative consequences of bereavement. Whereas memorializing rituals help those children who lost their parents to death, those whose parent was deported will benefit from rituals that connect them to their absent parent where possible — online conversations at regular times, letter writing, eating foods the parent used to prepare, or making crafts to show the parent, for instance. So, to sum it up, anything you can do to make the child's life safe and normal, and anything you can do to help them connect with their parent, will help them. 

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