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Future Of DACA Affecting Mental Health Of Young Undocumented Immigrants

Cultural barriers often exist that prevent young undocumented immigrants from finding psychological help

DACA protests
DACA protests.

In September 2017, President Trump announced that protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would end for thousands of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., who were brought into the country illegally with their parents.

Trump gave Congress six months to extend protections to these young immigrants, but no solution appears to be on the horizon. So how is this heightened threat of deportation affecting their mental health?

Luz Garcini, postdoctoral fellow at Rice University's Department of Psychology, has been studying the psychological stresses of rescinding DACA on the undocumented community.

Garcini has found that undocumented immigrants between the ages of 18 and 25 appear to be most at risk for psychological stress.

"II think their stresses were very unique to this group," Garcini said. "This is a group that is highly acculturated, (who) were often brought to the United States by their parents."

Garcini added that this demographic is predominantly English speaking and the majority of them have at least a high school education, in contrast to other age groups of undocumented immigrants.

"Literally, they almost perceive themselves as being U.S. born," she said.

Garcini began collecting information during the Obama administration in 2014 and 2015. When the Trump administration announced its decision to phase out DACA protections, Garcini discovered that those actions have psychological and physiological effects on the undocumented population.

"We don't know if some of these actions are preventing them from seeking mental health services, going out to work, even from spending and stimulating the economy," Garcini said. "That's what motivated me to conduct this survey that I'm currently doing to try to obtain at least (some information) into what's happening."

Garcini's research has revealed that young undocumented immigrants report high levels of anxiety, followed by depression. She said symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder could also arise with the possible removal of DACA protections.

"If deportation occurs for them or for a friend, we could see symptoms of trauma-related distress such as nightmares and flashbacks, or over-obsessing over distressing thoughts," she said.

Cultural barriers often exist that prevent young undocumented immigrants from finding psychological help.

"In the case of this population," Garcini said, "we're not only seeing a cultural variance or a cultural factor that is there in terms of mental health-seeking behavior, but we're also having the contextual additive effect of fear — fear of deportation."

Many high school and college students often don't take advantage of counseling available for free on their campuses, Garcini said, and "often these services are free, but they don't go because of fear of being identified."

Undocumented immigrants instead often reach out to nonprofit faith-based organizations, in part, because of the confidentiality those groups provide.

Garcini is reaching out to DACA recipients and their families through an anonymous online survey.

"People are very much afraid of talking," Garcini said. "Whereas before (during the Obama administration), people were talking to us or talking to the media. People are afraid of retaliation. There's an increasing mistrust that is happening."

Luz Garcini
Luz Garcini

But even with an anonymous survey, other obstacles exist.

"It's a little challenging because it requires access to technology," she said. "We know sometimes this is a limitation in our community, not so much for the Dreamers … but some of their families might not."

Garcini is also reaching out to the National Latino Psychological Association and Hispanic-serving educational institutions to help gather information.

Garcini said the number one thing young undocumented immigrants need to keep in mind is to validate their experience, "not to put it down or minimize their distress. To sit down with their feelings, with their emotions and acknowledge that there is a reason why they feel that way."

Young undocumented immigrants are also encouraged to not suppress or ignore their distress. Garcini said they have "to learn to identify their symptoms of distress so they can monitor how their mental health is moving along the lines. Rather than trying to suppress them or ignore them."

It's also recommended young undocumented immigrants find someone to talk to. "Look for support social networks that will make them feel stronger, that will help them validate their experience, that will help give them the support they need."

Garcini said young undocumented immigrants have the support of a lot of the Latino community. "I always say the undocumented experience not only affects the undocumented immigrant, but affects all of us as a community. Most of us know at least one person that we love who is undocumented. They're not alone in the fight. We're here for them and it's important that they know that."

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