2017-05-10
Story

A girl and her father at an immigrants' rights protest in Washington, D.C. in 2010.

Photo by rrodrickbeiler via iStock

By Anna Boiko-Weyrauch

Cristian is a high school senior who lives on Colorado’s Western Slope. His father works in construction, and Cristian is afraid of the on-the-job risks that could send his father to the emergency room.

Cristian received limited immigration benefits under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that grants young, undocumented people temporary work permission and protection from deportation. But his parents are undocumented.

Cristian, who asked that his last name be withheld because of fears of deportation, feels safe enough to seek medical care, he said, if he needed it. But “I do feel afraid if my parents go to the doctor, someone will say something or they’ll be turned in [to immigration agents].”

Fear of deportation among undocumented immigrants can harm their well-being in myriad ways, according to a body of research predating the 2016 presidential election, and interviews with immigrants in Colorado.

The effects include anxiety from not knowing if immigration agents will suddenly arrest and deport someone or their family members; avoidance of the medical system because of fear of deportation, which can delay treatment and exacerbate chronic disease; and stress from feeling unwelcome in the United States.

Several studies have found that fears of deportation can deter some immigrants from accessing preventive medical care and dental care, prescription drugs and eyeglasses, as well as adequate prenatal care.

Cristian’s family uses home remedies—such as teas, herbs and over-the-counter pills—to get better first, rather than going to the doctor. He attributed that in part to their culture, but also fear of deportation following President Donald Trump’s election, after he campaigned on a promise of tightening immigration restrictions.

Cristian said that’s not fair. “We should be able to go to the doctor and not be afraid that something will happen to them,” he said of his family members.

Some research has found that even with the protection of the DACA program, some immigrants were afraid to go to the doctor. A study of young undocumented immigrants in California found they sought medical care through the health care system as a last resort—even if they were granted temporary legal status—due to fear of deportation, as well as cost, discrimination and lack of familiarity with the system. The study subjects instead leaned predominantly on family members and traditional medicinal remedies.

Worry about deportation in itself can also impact a person’s sense of security and well-being.

Another high school senior on the Western Slope, Daniel, said he doesn’t take his temporary protection from deportation for granted. (He asked to go by a pseudonym because he’s concerned about being deported, or shunned by his peers.)

A few years ago, his father and sister were deported to Mexico and his mother left to be with them. Daniel is a DACA recipient and gained temporary work permission, so he stayed behind with his brother, and started working at the age of 14 as he finished high school.

He avoids seeking medical care in order to save money in case he’s suddenly deported, and worries about an emergency that could wipe out his savings.  

“You hope that you wake up well, that you end the day well and that nothing bad happens in between,” Daniel said.

A 2012 study of health care providers in Massachusetts found almost 50 percent of them noticed negative impacts of fear of deportation among immigrant patients, including diminished emotional well-being and avoidance of necessary health care. Related research found immigrants participating in focus groups expressed fear of deportation and distrust of local law enforcement, and that those feelings sometimes were associated with hypertension and depression.

Few studies examine how immigration status affects mental health and well-being, despite public interest in the topic. One recent study found that, compared to U.S.-born or documented Latinos, those who were undocumented were more likely to suffer from anxiety, adjustment and alcohol-abuse disorders, but were less likely to get mental health treatment. There is scant research on mental health disparities between undocumented immigrants and the general population.

Stress and anxiety are apparent among immigrant community leaders in Denver, Together Colorado organizer Celesté Martinez said. (Together Colorado is a pro-immigration reform community organization and a grantee of The Colorado Trust.) From physical exhaustion and avoidance of public places, to feeling more susceptible to catching a cold, community leaders and their children react in different ways to the hostile political rhetoric and uncertain atmosphere for immigrants, Martinez said.

One source of fear is what will happen to personal information that immigrants share with local governments to receive services, such as food assistance or driver’s licenses.

In fact, 23 percent fewer people were served by Colorado’s immigrant driver’s license program in the three months following the presidential election, compared to the same time period a year earlier, according to data from the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles. The number of appointment no-shows nearly doubled to around 2,400 people. Immigration organizers think policy changes at the federal level, either real or imagined, are the most likely reason for the drop.

“There’s a lot of concern and anxiety around information sharing” between local authorities and immigration authorities, Martinez said.

The security of personal information used in those programs is typically governed by regulations, not by laws, Martinez pointed out.

“That’s subject to change with whoever is in charge in office and in the presidency,” she said. The insecurity of what might happen to those rules sets a lot of people on edge.

Tensions are also higher in Latino immigrant communities on the Western Slope since the 2016 election, Hispanic Affairs Project (HAP) Executive Director Ricardo Perez said. (HAP, a grantee of the Colorado Trust, is a grassroots community education, legal assistance and policy advocacy organization.)

During the presidential campaign and since the election, Cristian said he and his friends have seen, for the first time, Latino students bullied and called racial slurs at school.

Still, even before the election, being an undocumented immigrant was hard, Perez said. The Latino immigrant communities on the Western Slope include many households in which both parents are working full time, living in poverty and isolation, and without health insurance.

“Just to be a marginalized part of society is stressful,” Perez said.

Some law enforcement agencies on the Western Slope are speaking out in support of undocumented immigrants. The Mesa County Sheriff’s office, for example, stated it does not pursue, investigate or detain undocumented immigrants in order to deport them. Such statements help make people feel safer, Grand Junction-based HAP organizer Estrella Ruiz said.

Still, Ruiz is worried about the mental health of young people without legal immigration status and their ability to access culturally appropriate services to cope with stress and treat depression. She plans to begin conversations with schools about how to reach out to struggling youth.

People interviewed for this story also cited rumors as a continual source of anxiety, such as unconfirmed and inaccurate reports of immigration raids spread through Spanish-language media, Facebook and person-to-person texts and phone calls.

“A friend of a friend tells them, and the rumors are making them afraid,” said Cynthia Saenz, vice president of the Gunnison-based community education and support organization Inmigrantes Unidos de Gunnison.

Saenz has seen immigrants in her area restrict their trips to Montrose because they are afraid of being stopped by immigration authorities on the way there. Montrose, nearly an hour and a half away, is a common destination because the town’s Latino markets sell relatively inexpensive groceries, she said.

“We have more fear of the police, because you don’t know who is [Immigrations and Customs Enforcement] and who is the police,” Saenz said.

Instead of seeking public assistance for needs like supplemental food, Saenz expects more immigrants will rely on their churches, she said.

Children and teenagers are especially sensitive to the negative atmosphere, immigrant rights advocates said. The new presidential administration has brought to the surface the “latent fear” that parents and children will be separated through deportation, HAP program manager Nicole Bernal Ruiz said.

Bernal Ruiz meets one-on-one with families to help them with immigration-related legal matters and has noticed a few recent cases of serious depression.

“I see that the young people are struggling to see hope, and to see how everything could work out well for them,” she said.

Daniel is one young person doubting his future prospects. He has a full scholarship to a Colorado school and is on the wait-list for a prominent Midwestern university. But “what if all of a sudden, I’m halfway through my degree and I’m deported?” He wondered. “I would lose everything.”

The fear has changed his confidence in whether he will be able to keep pursuing his goals in the U.S.

“I think it’s made me more cautious about planning too far ahead.”

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch
Journalist
Denver, Colorado