‘Their prison is built of fear’

Ella Rhodes on the psychological impacts for children of undocumented parents.

Psychologists in the USA have warned of the effects of immigration policies on the mental health of children with undocumented parents. In light of current UK immigration policy, and that to be implemented post-Brexit, they outline the role for mental health professionals and others to develop approaches which could help these children and their families.

Writing for The Psychologist online were Dr Elke Weesjes, an associate at Paula A. Madrid Psy.D & Associates who is involved in writing psychological evaluations for immigration proceedings and interviewing adults and children facing the psychological stress of immigration, and Dr Paula Madrid, a clinical and forensic psychologist who, along with her private practice, is a consultant to the Children’s Health Fund in New York.

The world has been shocked by the statistic that the number of migrant children in US government custody is at its highest ever level. Yet not many consider the chronic fear and anxiety experienced by children whose parents face deportation for being undocumented in the country. This is no small issue: there are an estimated 4.1 million US citizens, under the age of 18, who live with at least one undocumented parent. ‘These children also live in a prison, albeit a less sensational and more insidious one. Instead of being built of metal and concrete, their prison is built of fear.’

Over the last 10 years Weesjes and Madrid have evaluated hundreds of children whose parents, often hailing from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, are undocumented. Their lives are almost always overshadowed by fear and anxiety about their family’s future. This uncertainty often prevents children from planning for their lives, making meaningful friendships, and leads to clinical levels of distress, anxiety, attachment and trust issues. Many older children are fearful to go to college in case one or both of their parents are deported, or because submitting application or funding information could expose their parents’ immigration status. ‘Children’s overwhelming fear of deportation, along with day-to-day exposure to discrimination and the inability to participate in modern rites of passage such as attending college, places them at risk for emotional stress and social isolation. In this context, the term “perpetual outsiderhood” was coined by Suárez-Orozco and colleagues.’

Elke Weesjes completed her PhD at the University of Sussex in 2011, and in their article the authors turn their attention to the rising levels of hate crime in the UK. During her time as Home Secretary, Theresa May’s hostile environment policy intended to target illegal migrants, those who had overstayed visas, some commonwealth migrants and those who had been refused asylum.

Many of these people and their families have lived in the UK for years, yet the Immigration Act which was implemented in 2016 denies individuals access to basic services such as housing, employment, banking services, driving licences and healthcare.

The authors wrote: ‘Thus, unauthorised immigrants and their documented or undocumented children are cut off from society, are unable to socially integrate, and are often forced into a life of destitution… The ultimate aim of this law is the detention and removal of unauthorised immigrants. The Home Office, however, appears as disabled by bureaucracy as its US equivalent. Asylum and immigration cases, and the appeals that usually follow, can take many years to be concluded. As a result, immigrants and their children live in fear of deportation for prolonged periods of time.’

Given the relatively recent implementation of this law the mental health consequences of the policy are only just beginning to surface. ‘By looking at the experiences of mental health professionals in a country like the United States, where the crackdown on illegal immigration has been in full force since the 1990s, strategies can be formulated on how to assist these children and their families who are impacted by these policies.’ 

To read the full article see tinyurl.com/y8oahkzw

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