First Draft of Research Essay

Raquel Sweeney

Writing 2


Mental Health Among Immigrant Children

The ability to form relationships and the association of behavior/our social identification is a direct relation to how we were raised and the memories made when our brain was in its most cognitive state, which happens to be during childhood and early adulthood. Important experiences that happen while we are young adversely affects how will eventually perceive the world and ourselves. When children and adults are subjected to extreme stress and are without resources for proper processing, they are left vulnerable to developing disorders that can affect personal development.  There are two different types of stress that undocumented youth experience. First, is the stress as a direct result of the physical migration process, the second type negative feelings and moods associated with cultural adaptation. The emotional impact of crossing into America can cause trauma based on the likelihood of theft and abuse during the expedition. Once children and possibly their families have conquered the obstacle of physically getting into the country thus comes the emotional chaos of learning how to integrate into society and what roles one will take on. This research paper will take an in depth search to discover how immigration affects the mental health of children who have migrated to America as undocumented.

Immigration is not new to America; we are quite literally a nation built on waves of migrants in search for refuge, opportunity, or freedom from persecution.  In 2005 out of the millions of undocumented immigrants that reside in America 1.9 million of those were children or young adults under the age of 18 years (Pew, March 2005). According to those numbers that was one sixth of the population eleven years ago now the numbers have rose significantly.  Children or young adults are more frequently making the trek from their home country to America and this is happening whilst their brains are still developing and processing information that they will use to guide them as members of society. Children and young adults are expected to find and conform to their social and ethnic identities and yet the instability of not belonging anywhere affects what cultural ties that young people will make. Fabricio Balcazar from the American Psychological Association on the Policy Statement on the Incarceration of Undocumented Migrant Families reported that most times children who immigrate with their families or parents are “… fleeing violence, domestic and or family abuse, and or dangerous gang-related activity from which their governments have been unable to protect them” (Journal of Psychology, April 2016). Balacazar explains that most times people must immigrate with their families as means of survival. Immigration is necessary in order to protect children and adolescents from poverty, violence, and persecution and yet the migration process still leaves them susceptible to gaining stress disorders. Instability is rooted within migrant children; no place is safe enough if they stay in their home country they could potentially fall into the government’s corruption or gang related activity, thus migration is necessary.

Many parents uproot their children and bring them to America so that they might have a chance to lead a better life than the one they left behind. Unfortunately, the extreme stressors of making journeys like crossing the Mexican-American border can cause long term mental health issues of undocumented youth.  Daniel Pine and Judith Cohen who are Biological Psychiatrists conducted a study in which they closely examined the effects of trauma on adolescents depending on the situation ranging from physical abuse to sniper attacks. The research was analyzed with many scenarios and subject groups to ensure validity. The findings indicated that “…trauma appears particularly strong and consistent with symptoms of depressive and anxiety disorders, as opposed to other mental syndromes. Among the anxiety disorders, symptoms of PTSD, acute stress disorder, separation anxiety, and generalized anxiety disorders each represent relatively common problems following exposure to extreme stress” (Pine, Cohen, 3). Young immigrant adolescents typically experience some form of this trauma whether it is preexisting in their home country or happens during migration. The book Women and Therapy carefully analyzes the dangerous journey of crossing the border especially for women, in which migrants are susceptible to robbery, rape, murder, and imprisonment (Amy Frieman, 12).  Women and children are more susceptible to rape and abuse which has long impacting effects on the mental health of victims. Often times victims subjected to abuse report feeling worthless and having their identity undermined. As a result of such trauma we can conclude that undocumented children are more likely to experience behavioral issues, are susceptible to developing disorders relating with stress, and could have difficultly forming and maintaining social relationships.

Once undocumented families arrive in the United States they are immediately plagued with the worry of deportation. A whole new type of stress is inflicted upon immigrant youth. If they have endured the long physically tasking journey to America, then they must try to assimilate and adapt a new social and ethnic role. According to Ruben Rumbaut in The International Migration Review “Youths see and compare themselves in relation to those around them, based on their social similarity or dissimilarity with the reference groups that most directly affect their experiences – e.g., with regard to such visible and socially categorized markers as gender, race, accent, language, class, religion, and nationality. Ethnic self-awareness is heightened or blurred, respectively, depending on the degree of dissonance or consonance of the social contexts which are basic to identity formation” (The Crucible, 1994). Developing youth use their peers as guides to conform to a normalized society. Part of the process of assimilation is to act according to what culture and traditions are most prevalent in a specific region. Undocumented youth at some point figure out that they are not considered American even though it is the only home they have been accustomed to.  For example, from the selection of personal anecdotes Papeles most personal accounts describe their alienation amongst their peers. One student named Eva who contributed her story to the Papeles project and she described how she had to keep her immigration status a secret because her peers would discriminate and threaten their counterparts (Jose Manuel, 2012). Most of the youth from the book Papeles describe how they live in fear and alienation and have no ability to voice their concerns because of the fear of deportation. For people who have experienced trauma or live in constant anxiety and do not have resources to help them overcome those obstacles are more likely to feel hopeless which in many cases lead to depressive disorders.

According to Jean-Marie R. Stacciarini “…first generation, undocumented Latino adolescents, dissatisfaction with the migration decision substantially increases the odds of developing depression or anxiety disorders…” (Minority Health, June 2014). Stacciarini inquires how most of the time children who come to America come at a very young age and learn to assimilate with American culture, but once they can consciously register their own social identity they find they are excluded from activities or rights which not only would affect them as citizens but also would disrupt the growth into adulthood. Undocumented adolescents have to watch peers who are their equals transitioning into to adulthood with rights to vote, to drive, to hold a job. The inequality amongst their peers are recognized and most learn that the wall that separates them from the rest of society are paper thin. The isolation that undocumented youth feel from society tries to convince them they are not worthy of legal citizenship based solely from the land where they were born which leads to isolation and depression. It becomes hard for undocumented students to find a supportive community in which they are not subjected to alienation, discrimination, and classicism.

As many different factors of immigration are examined that play roles in the social and cognitive development of adolescents we also have to consider how family dynamics of immigrant families influence the mental health of youth. It is common for undocumented children and young adults to assimilate into American culture more readily than their elder counterparts.  This can cause a rift in family ties when parents take longer to integrate into American culture. Based on a study of acculturation conflict can happen when children of immigrant families adapt to the more individualized American culture that strays away from normative cultural practices (Acculturation and Latino Family Processes, 5). In cases with Latino families it was shown that “…external boundaries may become rigid to preserve the cultural roles and patterns of their culture of origin (Hernandez & McGoldrick). In turn, it appears that this rigidity elicits intergenerational conflicts when parents react to the rapid assimilation of children. Consequently, parent-adolescent acculturation gaps may decrease family cohesion and adaptability, increase family conflict, fuel adolescent rebellion, alienate parents and adolescents, and contribute to adolescent behavioral problems” (Acculturation and Latino Family Processes, 6). It can be stressful for undocumented children when they try to culturally adapt so they might integrate and to be like their peers, but their parents aggressively encourage their children to preserve their native traditions and culture. It can be confusing and could ultimately be a source of instability since often times an immigrants native culture and tradition is used as an argument for why they do not belong as citizens. In a sense to truly gain citizenship people must pledge complete allegiance to American culture thus becoming hard for undocumented youth to choose an ethnic identity to conform to.  Often times it forces these adolescents to choose between their families and an opportunity to lead the most normal life which can cause stress, anxiety, and depression.

Immigrating to America in hopes of survival can perversely affect the mental stability of young people because of the extreme stress and pressure concerning the unpredictability of the migration journey and the assimilation into American culture. As many research studies have shown, undocumented children are susceptible to negative mental health affects because their development is directly influenced by trauma. Society disapproves of immigration so heavily that there are no resources for children affected by acute stress. We create a population of children who turn into adults experiencing mental disorders and we refuse to do anything of it and yet we blame undocumented minorities for drug trafficking problems, substance abuse, and gang violence and we make no way to change our system.  If mental health institutions were proactive in addressing disorders caused by the stress of immigration actions caused by mental health instability could be prevented such as violence, murder, substance abuse, suicide, the percentage of student dropouts.  If American society never learns how to ease the burden and to help assimilate families and children in search of survival, we cannot expect that our population’s percentage of mentally affected people will reduce. We cannot keep subjecting innocent children to mental disorders nor should we criminalize them when our isolation starts to affect societal norms.

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