Immigration and Mental Health

Immigration and Mental Health

The Trump administration’s enforcement of anti-immigration policies has many undocumented immigrants and refugees living in constant fear of deportation. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are over 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States. A large percentage of these undocumented individuals, as well as legal immigrants, grow increasingly concerned about their status in the United States due to the federal government’s anti-immigration stances. This fear is clearly revealed in studies on the topic of mental health and immigrant populations.

The Psychological Impact of Immigration: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  • According to the DSM-5, PTSD is a trauma- and stressor-related disorder resulting from exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence (American Psychological Association, 2013). To be diagnosed with PTSD a person must show one or more symptoms within the (a) intrusive and (b) avoidant symptom clusters. Also, a person must show two or more symptoms within the (c) negative alterations in cognition and mood, and (d) arousal and reactivity symptom clusters.
  • Those who faced trauma before or during migration, such as victims of domestic violence, may be retraumatized by current anti-immigration policies (e.g., Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy; Holter, 2018). This leads to a marked decrease in functioning, negatively impacting migrants’ psychological and physical well-being.
  • PTSD symptoms overlap with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Anxiety symptoms related to the migration process may present in some of the following ways: restlessness, sleep disturbance, impairments in attention and concentration, frustration and irritability, and hypervigilance. Symptoms of depression after immigration that overlap with PTSD symptoms are persistent and hyperbolic negative beliefs about oneself, others, or the world; a persistent, negative emotional state; diminished interest or participation in significant activities; feelings of detachment from others; and the inability to experience positive emotions (American Psychological Association, 2013). Researchers Walker and Barnett (2007) found that 71% of migrants with PTSD also met criteria for a Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) diagnosis.
  • The long-term stress faced by immigrants who face potential deportation negatively impacts the health of their children, who may be U.S. citizens. In fact, in early 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement warning that this “toxic stress” negatively impacts children’s short- and long-term health and can damage their developing brains.
  • Researchers Rojas-Flores, Clements, Hwang Koo, and London (2017) also found that PTSD symptoms were significantly higher for Latino citizen children of detained and deported parents than for children whose parents were legal or undocumented residents without prior contact with ICE agents. This study suggests that necessary reforms to immigration enforcement practices must be put in place to reduce the negative impact on the mental health of Latino citizen children. Some of these practices include, but are not limited to, (a) reducing the unnecessary prolonged duration of parent-child separation, (b) revising immigration enforcement apprehension/arrest procedures so that children do not have to be exposed to this potentially traumatizing procedure, and (c)creating deportation legislation that favors keeping families together (Rojas-Flores, 2017).

If you or a loved one is facing deportation, seek out legal counsel and a psychological evaluation for immigration matters. Non-profit legal organizations are a low-cost option that can offer vital services. If you can substantiate that deportation will cause extreme hardship or emotional distress to a U.S. citizen family member, you can increase the likelihood that a loved one will be permitted to remain in the country.

Abdul Rahim Hakimi
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