Mental-health study of U.S. kids affected by surge in deportations

Researchers urge Congress to consider impact on U.S. kids who lose parents or are forced abroad

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An unprecedented surge in deportations in recent years has affected tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of American children. The traumatic experience of losing a parent for an entire childhood — or being forced to move abroad to remain with that parent — is certain to have a profound impact on the mental health of these U.S. citizen children, according to researchers who have begun a study of this population.

This week, researchers based in Texas, California and Mexico released a joint announcement about a project they began last year to survey deportees’ American-citizen kids. Lead researcher Luis Zayas, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, said he wanted to draw attention to his team’s work now because Congress has begun serious negotiations on immigration reform proposals. Zayas hopes legislators take into account the welfare of children whose parents face deportation.

“It’s disturbing because these children are citizens,” Zayas said. “Our country is not accustomed to turning people into exiles.”

The University of California at Davis’ Center for Reducing Health Disparities is also collaborating on the project, along with Mexico’s National Institute of Psychiatry.

The study, expected to be done by next year, is funded with a $182,000 grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers are interviewing a total of about 80 children in the Austin, Texas, and Sacramento, Calif., areas, as well as children who’ve moved to Mexico to be with parents.

The investigators are asking community groups to help them identify children to interview, and they are promising confidentiality to participants. Two researchers in Missouri and Southern Illinois are also conducting interviews. Most children will probably be between 10 and 15-years-old.

Clinical internal medicine expert Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola, director of the UC Davis Center for Reducing Health Disparities, said: “We know that family separation can be catastrophic for children in critical stages of their development. Childhood adversity is one of the strongest indicators for early-onset mental health disorders, as well as for the premature manifestation of chronic health conditions.”

In Mexico, researchers will interview children born and raised in America, who have since been uprooted.

A deportation-related move to Mexico “tears away” children from “peers, schools and communities they know. And it is done under government coercion,” Zayas said. “In all of the cases I’ve studied and evaluated, families would have gone to small towns and hamlets [in Mexico] with minimal schooling and to impoverished conditions.”

Zayas said he hopes the evidence researchers produce will be “considered by those who make immigration laws and those who implement them.”

Some of the children affected by deportations have parents who are both undocumented. Others have so-called “mixed status” families, with one parent who is a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident and one parent who is undocumented.

The Center for Public Integrity and KQED public radio in California recently reported on the circumstances of U.S. citizens, many with children, who thought they could sponsor their undocumented spouses for legal status with relative ease.

They do have that right to sponsor a spouse. But when they begin the process, their foreign spouses are eventually told that Congress requires them to stay out of the United States for 10 years, or more, as a punishment before they can become legal residents.

This form of mandatory punishment has resulted in many children being separated from parents. Bethany Gonzalez’s two sons, for example, won’t be able to live with their father Jimi in the United States until 2018. By then the Iowa boys will be adults.

Other Americans have moved with their children abroad, and are raising them with spouses in precarious surroundings. Margot Bruemmer of New Jersey, a mother of two, recently visited Congress to urge legislators not to forget the plight of Americans who’ve been forced to leave the United States to keep families together. She told the Center that she has faced kidnapping and extortion threats in Veracruz, Mexico, where she moved so her family can stay together.

Statistics on how many children are affected by deportation or parents being barred from the United States are hard to come by. In 2012, Congress began receiving periodic reports from immigration officials on deportees who claim to have U.S.-born children.

In March of 2012, a Department of Homeland Security report to Congress estimated that during the six months between January and June of 2011, more than 46,400 people claiming to have U.S.-born children were deported from the United States or were otherwise “excluded,” perhaps after losing a legal proceeding to remain here.

Last year, an immigration official told the Center for Public Integrity that 74 percent of this group of deportees had criminal records, but that claim was not included in the report to Congress and no details were released separately.

Academic investigators who have examined deportation records say that deportees’ minor traffic violations and prior immigration violations have cast them into the category of criminal offenders. The Arizona Republic reported in 2011 that 60 percent of all deportees turned over to immigration authorities by local law enforcement agencies had no criminal records or only low-level offenses.

According to more recent records obtained by the Applied Research Center, which focuses on immigration policies, between July 2010 and September 2012, more than 105,500 people claiming to have U.S.-citizen children were deported. More than 99,200 other people claiming to be parents of U.S. citizens were also excluded, found inadmissible or volunteered to leave.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimated that in 2008, the number of children in “mixed status” families — with an undocumented parent — grew from 2.7 million in 2003 to 4 million in 2008.