Fears of Deportation and Forced Family Separation Impact Kids’ School Success

On occasion, [youth will] tell me, “My mom got deported earlier this year” or “My mom is currently detained in ICE”. . . . You can tell that they can’t really focus on schoolwork at the level that they should be. . . . It’s pretty tough. Daniel Diaz, financial aid specialist, La Joya Independent School District

Success at school comes from more than being physically present. Threats to a child’s sense of safety, family, and living environment influence their ability to do well in school. Immigration stressors common in the Valley — deportations, fear of family separation, border checkpoints, and immigration politics — can affect a Rio Grande Valley student’s readiness to learn throughout the entire educational pipeline, from cradle to college. In the short term, these immigration-related stressors can impact school attendance, grades, and sense of safety at school. Long term, these stressors could cut a student’s educational aspirations short.

Education influences the potential for employment opportunities, life skills, and social connectedness — all of which are big predictors of health status as adults. Kids who do better in school have better health as teens and as adults. Education is an important lever in health promotion, as research suggests that individuals with higher levels of formal education can have a greater sense of control over their lives, as well as more social support — both indicators of improved health outcomes.67 Additionally, higher education is also associated with healthier behaviors, such as exercising more, drinking less alcohol, and not smoking.67, 68, 69   

More education is also associated with better employment, income, and financial security at the individual level, which can translate into economic benefits at the national level.67

I’ve had some cases, in regards to some families being deported . . . dealing with that . . . with the little trauma of the boys and girls saying, “What do I do now? Where’s my mom? Where’s my dad?” or “They took my mom” or “They took my dad.” That’s been a little bit challenging for us this year. Roel Faz, principal, Cesar Chavez Elementary

Difficulty Keeping Up Grades and Going to School

He has this fear and anxiety that has affected his health and is affecting his schooling so much that we think he’s going to have to repeat this year at school. He’s a smart kid, he’s in the [gifted and talented] program and attending programs at the university along with middle school, so he’s going to lose access to those programs and have to start at zero. . . . He’s too young to be dealing with this. Ninfa, Rio Grande Valley resident, mother of 2

A child’s academic performance can suffer after the detention or deportation of a caregiver. Immigration policies can create a climate of fear that affects children’s academic performance, even if their family is not directly impacted by detention and deportation. In a 2010 study, the majority of immigrant parents (63%) reported that the threat of detention and deportation affected their children’s school performance.36

We found evidence of this in our focus groups, through stories about youth who experienced radical changes in their attitudes toward school after the deportation of a loved one. Youth who had experienced parental separation (or were exposed to an immigration stressor that made them fear being separated) exhibited declines in their school readiness. Children who were once eager to learn now didn’t want to go to school, and their grades began to suffer. One mother shared the story of her son who was so stressed about the possibility of his mother being deported that it became harder for him to keep up with his schoolwork, and he now faced being held back from progressing to the next grade level.

Survey Snapshot: School avoidance anxiety and school readiness factors

Our survey asked Valley residents about their child’s school readiness factors, and whether or not parents had observed changes in their child related to the parent’s immigration status. Our survey found that 40% of undocumented parents had a child who was exhibiting symptoms of school avoidance anxiety (n=13), compared to almost one-third with protected status (n=3) and one-fifth among citizen parents (n=2).*

* In keeping with how the original tool was developed and validated, we limited these results to parents who reported children ages 8–18.

Our survey also found that because of policies targeting a parent’s immigration status:

  • Almost one-fifth of undocumented parents reported that their child had fear about going to school (n=11), compared to one-tenth among parents with protected status (n=3) and 4% among citizen parents (n=1).
  • Almost one-fourth of undocumented parents reported that their child had trouble focusing on schoolwork (n=14), compared to one-tenth among parents with protected status (n=3) and 4% among citizen parents (n=1).
  • One-fifth of undocumented parents reported that their child had missed days of school (n=12), compared to no parents with protected status (n=0) and 4% among citizen parents (n=1).
  • Almost one-fourth of undocumented parents reported that their child had trouble keeping up grades (n=14), compared to 4% of protected status parents (n=1) and 0% of citizen parents (n=0).
Survey Snapshot: Instances of school staff contributing to anti-immigrant climate

During our data collection in the Rio Grande Valley, we heard of a few instances in Rio Grande Valley elementary schools and colleges where students were discriminated against for being Latinx or “Hispanic.” While not the exact focus of our investigation, we want to acknowledge how the political climate is impacting some youth in the Rio Grande Valley. One mother reported that her child was asked to leave the classroom because the teacher didn’t teach “Hispanics.” Others discussed rising fears over racism amid current politics.

In our survey, we found that 14% of undocumented parents reported that their child experienced discrimination at school due to the parent’s immigration status (n=9), compared to 4% of parents with protected status (n=1) and 4% of citizen parents (n=1). Experiencing discrimination has been found to have long-term adverse health effects, and there is some evidence to support creating more equitable policies as a means to confront and dissolve these experiences.

Challenges to Pursuing a Higher Education

For me it is kind of scary, because being the oldest one with papers, if anything were to happen . . . I would have to look after my siblings. That’s hard because I am barely ready to start college and I am not even stable enough for myself so it would be hard to look after my 4 other siblings. Yira, Rio Grande Valley, college freshman
Students that are undocumented, they’ll question, “Am I able to go to school?” Daniel Diaz, financial aid specialist, La Joya Independent School District

Youth in the Valley are focused on pursuing a higher education — and many are on that track, as 90% percent of Valley high schoolers graduate from high school within 4 years. The region’s graduation rate rises when 5-year and 6-year graduates are included. This is higher than the Texas average, and it’s driven by community values around education. The collaborative known as RGV Focus is an example of these values. Formed in 2012, the coalition consists of “leaders from the education, nonprofit, community, workforce and civic sectors”70 all dedicated to college readiness for the youth of the Rio Grande Valley.

But even the most dedicated students face barriers to pursuing college. Some Valley students face higher costs to attend college since they are ineligible for scholarships and financial aid because they are DACA or undocumented — causing some to lose hope of attending college, and to withdraw from their focus on high school. For those who pursue a college education, they often find out the high costs of enrolling in college courses forces them to work extra hours to pay for their classes — which comes at a cost to their ability to complete their coursework, slowing their progress toward their goals.

Border checkpoints are also physically isolating youth from educational opportunities. Educational leaders and focus group participants described how they, or family members, are unable to drive past immigration checkpoints that surround the Rio Grande Valley. These checkpoints impede access to educational opportunities for youth. While some Valley youth are accepted at top-tier schools around the country and in the state of Texas, they often cannot even visit the school because their identification isn’t acceptable for border checkpoint passage. Some end up not attending because they are unable to pass through the checkpoints.

Schools Uplift Students When They Promote Stability and Equity in Education

Our mission is to serve every child who lives in the community, regardless of their documentation status. Dr. Daniel King, superintendent, PSJA School District

Research has found that schools can provide stability for youth affected by immigration stressors. In a study on the effect of immigration raids on academic performance, researchers found that while 1 in 5 children had difficulty keeping up with their grades immediately following raids, overall, schools offered key stability and support for children whose parents had been arrested in the raids.50

Educators and community members in the Rio Grande Valley are going above and beyond to serve their students and to see them succeed. The Valley is home to schools that outperform higher-income school districts, and some schools and school districts are leading the nation with innovative programs they’ve developed to ensure students are graduating — including intensive drop-out recovery programs, National Blue Ribbon School awards and nominations, credit recovery academies, and community collaborations.

Even with all these programs, the trauma of a parental deportation still permeates a child’s educational experience. Deporting a student interrupts or potentially ends their schooling, and the deportation of a parent can affect a child’s ability to participate fully in their learning.

My son didn’t want to go to school. . . . He would hear his friends say they were afraid they would get home and their mom wouldn’t be there anymore. But what I liked about my son’s school was that the director brought in specialists to talk to them about not being so afraid, and that they would support them and the moms, and in one way or another they made them feel better.

Lourdes, Rio Grande Valley mother of 3

Fears of Deportation and Forced Family Separation Harm Adult Health

It affects me also. I have a son who is the youngest and the only one born here. So it’s been said a lot that if I get deported they would take him from me because he is from here and you go crazy just thinking that you might leave a child here, abandoned. . . . Thinking about that is very stressful and all that thinking can make you sick and for me all that stress gives me migraines.

Pues a mi tambien me afecta, yo tengo un hijo el mas chico que es de aqui nadamas el. El es el único que tiene papeles y pues se ha dicho mucho que si nos vayan agarrar y a mi me deportan que a él me lo van a quitar porque el es de aqui y pues uno se vuelve loca nadamas de pensar que vas a dejar aquí un hijo como quien dice abandonado por que yo no me siento agusto dejandoselo a otra persona y pues no tengo familiares aquí, con papeles no tengo pero si que estan igual que nosotros. …y pues es muy estresante y te enfermas de tanto estar pensando y yo ahorita de tanto estrés padezco migraña de tanto estar pensando de mi hijo si nos agarran, que mi esposo se va al trabajo si no regresa, y pues uno se tiene que aguantar todo eso y pues te enfermas de tanto estar pensando, y pues si me afecta bastante.

Glady, Rio Grande Valley resident, mother

A broad range of economic, social, societal, and environmental factors intersect and play out in community, family, and personal spaces to shape health. This section describes how adult health often is interwoven with child and family health, particularly when talking about immigration policy. It also describes how the ability to meet a family’s basic needs, adult physical and mental health status, health habits, and access to and use of medical care play out in the context of immigration policies in the Rio Grande Valley.

Adult Health Is Connected to Child and Family Well-Being

Research finds that adult and child health are interwoven when it comes to immigration status. In one study, the greater the legal vulnerability of the parent, the greater the reported impact of detention and deportation on what study authors called the family environment, which includes perceptions of parents’ emotional well-being, perceived ability to provide financially for the family, and the parent-child relationship, as well as child well-being.36

One focus group participant articulated the inter-relatedness of child and adult health, and how the possibility of detention or deportation creates an uncertainty that affects them and their families:

There is a very emotional imbalance in every one of our families. . . . The kids just live with it and start their families and this just adds to the stress on the parents because they now have daughters- or sons-in-law to worry about too, and grandchildren. So the worry becomes even more stressful, and the danger they are in even greater because it’s not just your kids in danger, it’s your grandkids. So then that piles on your health too in the form of headaches, trauma, stress, never having any peace or tranquility in your home because you are always preoccupied with what will happen next. The worry also of always telling your kids, “Never run a red light even by accident,” “If someone says something to you don’t answer them” . . . so many things. And you pass that stress onto them too.

. . . It harms me directly and indirectly, like we see with everyone it affects all of us but all of us differently. . . . I am not documented and neither are my kids so how does it affect my health? Just from the stress every time your child goes out or goes to work. . . . I have 2 kids with DACA but they are also in limbo because they don’t know if it will be cancelled or not, so nothing is certain and it really is a huge amount of stress. Not just that, I feel like we are part of really strong, defined families and that’s why it hurts so much — in taking away one member of the family it moves everybody because we are united and if you take away a child the parents go too, and you drag the other kids along with you. We are not part of disjointed families, our families are integrated, whole. . . . We are all in this limbo where nothing is certain.

Olga, Rio Grande Valley resident, mother of 2 DACA youth

Meeting Basic Family Needs Can Become Impossible

Youth in our focus groups described constant fear of a domino effect on their health due to separation from a family member.

My parents, they bring the money to the house. I help them as well, but it’s a domino effect. If they fall, we fall too. I’m 100% sure I wouldn’t be able to sustain myself if my parents were to leave, and I can’t imagine my life without my little brother — he’s everything to me. . . . You never know if you’re going to wake up the next day and if you’ll get through the day with your whole family being together. And that’s pretty scary. Aidee, Rio Grande Valley college student

Often deportation removes a main — or sole — source of income from a household and family, exacerbating economic issues for families that may already struggle to make ends meet.50 In one study, households had their income cut in half and one-quarter of households were left with zero income after someone in their home was deported.50 A 2010 study found that more than half of Latinx parents in mixed-status families had challenges providing for their children due to the threat of detention and deportation.36 Deportation overwhelmingly creates single-mother households, which, unlike when a partner is laid off or hurt on a job, cannot rely on unemployment or worker’s compensation.50

We estimate that each year, 500 US-born children in the Rio Grande Valley have health status that is less than “excellent” or “very good” after the income in their household changes once a primary earner is deported.*

* See Appendix D for background on calculation.

Fear Has Impacts on Individual Health and Population Health

Studies on immigration policy and health status find that the pervasive fear of deportation affects both mental and physical health for adults — parallel to the effects to children described in earlier sections of this report.

Importantly, this fear isn’t limited to undocumented parents — it affects parents with different forms of non-citizen status. A 2018 study found that permanent residents, people with temporary protected status, and undocumented parents reported significantly more psychological distress from immigration than US citizens.71 Another study published in 2018 found that among Latinx participants, knowing 1–2 deportees increased the odds of needing help for emotional or mental health problems by 45% compared to not personally knowing any deportees.72 Results were even more dramatic for people who personally knew 3 or more deportees, finding they were 4 times as likely as someone who didn’t personally know any deportees to need help for emotional or mental health problems such as feeling anxious, sad, or nervous.72

In a 2010 study, fear of deportation (not English proficiency, legal status, or other related factors) was the strongest predictor of stress among undocumented immigrants.73 The fear of deportation is important to adult health because it exacerbates chronic diseases such as depression, high blood pressure, and anxiety while producing a range of physical symptoms, such as hair loss or headaches in parents.74 Research finds that poor health increases with people’s fears of being deported, and that undocumented immigrants reported more stress — almost one-fourth more — from economic and job-related challenges than documented immigrants.75

Self-rated health — a validated measure that correlates well with actual health76 — varies between people who fear deportation and those who don’t. A study that compared Latinx immigrants who were concerned about deportation to Latinx immigrants who weren’t concerned found that 2 times as many people who were concerned rated their own health “poor” (9% vs. 4%). More people who were concerned rated their health “average” compared to people who were unconcerned about deportation (32% vs. 24%), with the balance of each rating it “good” or “reasonably good.”75

Survey Snapshot: Adult health status

In our survey, more than half of undocumented respondents said their own health was poor or fair (n=47), versus 41% among people with protected status (n=22) and 32% among citizens (n=17). By comparison, in 2017 25% of the Latinx population in the US reported fair or poor health.77

Managing particular health conditions that stress can exacerbate and that require constant attention can be challenging for immigrants, as one focus group participant described:

I just have diabetes only about 3 years so far, but with all the stress, and kids too, you get sick more often.

Elsa, Rio Grande Valley resident, mother of 3 DACA youth

Survey Snapshot: Adult symptoms of anxiety

Our survey also measured how many respondents reported symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Responses indicated that someone had either no symptoms or symptoms of mild, moderate, or severe anxiety. We found that greater proportions of undocumented respondents had symptoms of moderate and severe anxiety than people with protected or documented status. For moderate anxiety, 19% of undocumented respondents reported symptoms (n=17), compared with 8% of protected respondents (n=5) and 15% of respondents with citizen status (n=8). For severe anxiety, 14% of undocumented respondents reported symptoms (n=13), compared with 10% of protected respondents (n=6) and 7% of respondents with citizen status (n=4).

Adults with undocumented status who responded to our survey said that the threat of detention and deportation harmed their mental health. For example, three-fifths of people with undocumented status said that because of their status they feel stress (n=55), over three-quarters worry that their family will be separated (n=71), and half have anxiety about their family’s health (n=46). Among people with protected status, 34% felt stress (n=21), 32% reported worrying about family separation (n=20), and 29% had anxiety about family health (n=18). Among respondents with citizen status, the figures were 30% for stress (n=17), 28% for worry about family separation (n=16), and 21% for anxiety about family health (n=12).

Thirty-nine percent of undocumented respondents were less willing to report a crime (n=36), compared to 26% among protected status immigrants (n=16) and 16% among documented individuals (n=9). More than two-fifths of undocumented respondents reported feelings of racial profiling (n=39), which was double the rate of people with protected status (n=13) and citizens (n=12), 21%. While these are not direct measures of health or mental status, they reflect an overall perception that could contribute to heightened anxiety, which in turn would impact physical and mental health over the long term.

Survey Snapshot: Physical activity and eating among adults

In our survey, a larger proportion of undocumented adult respondents, 28%, reported difficulty exercising because of their undocumented status (n=26), compared to 23% of respondents with protected status (n=14) and 14% of citizens (n=8). Similar gradients in proportions are seen in people who reported difficulty buying food, with 27% of undocumented people (n=25) reporting it, compared to 24% of people with protected status (n=15) and 16% of citizens (n=9). These experiences are echoed in qualitative research that describes how undocumented populations attempt to remain invisible in public spaces out of fear of deportation.78, 79

Fear and Cost Barriers to Medical Care That Affect Community Health 

Living under the persistent threat of deportation, undocumented immigrants face direct barriers in accessing medical care, such as high costs of care or ineligibility for Medicaid.

One focus group participant described:

The reality is that even if we feel really sick we don’t go to the doctor unless it’s an emergency because we know that if we’re stressed now we will come out even more stressed because we know how much it’s going to cost. Dulce, Rio Grande Valley resident, mother of 4

One study across 5 sites in California, Florida, Illinois, South Carolina, and Texas found that after a parent’s detention or deportation, families were more likely to face economic hardship and less likely to use social support services, even for children who are US citizens.80 Reasons for using fewer services — such as emergency food or linguistically appropriate mental health support for children amid separation from a parent — included too few services available or services available on a temporary basis but not to meet long-term need, as well as fear of interacting with officials or fear of driving to reach services.80

There are also indirect barriers that result in immigrants less often seeking care, such as what is known in public health as a chilling effect. This describes when a climate of fear makes people less likely to use services for which they qualify. 

For example, research has found less use of prenatal care and HIV care in Arizona around the passage of SB 1070, one of the broadest and strictest anti-immigrant bills passed in recent years.78 A separate study found that Latinx citizens “are less likely to make an appointment to see a healthcare provider when the issue of immigration is mentioned.”81

Having health insurance and a regular place to receive health care are crucial in protecting and improving the health of undocumented immigrants. In a nationwide study, people who had both health insurance and a usual source of care were more likely to get preventive services, like a physical checkup or blood pressure test, compared to people who had neither.82

Sometimes we don’t go to the doctor because we can’t pay for the visit, and if we don’t qualify for county aid they won’t even see us because they ask for either cash or insurance. So we don’t even go to the doctor because we don’t have either.

Glady, Rio Grande Valley resident, mother

Research paints a picture of undocumented immigrants with diminished access to health insurance and use of medical services. For example, more than half of adult undocumented immigrants do not have health insurance, a proportion much higher than documented immigrants or US-born populations. In 2017, 39% of undocumented immigrants were uninsured, compared to 17% of lawfully permanent residents and 9% of US-born and naturalized citizens.83 A 2007 study conducted in California prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act found that a significantly lower percentage of undocumented Mexicans (66%) and other Latinx people (62%) in the state had a usual source of care compared to US-born White people (93%).84 It also found that undocumented Mexican people in the state had 1.6 fewer physician visits and undocumented Latinx people had 2.1 fewer physician visits compared to their native-born counterparts within the last year.84

Survey Snapshot: Access to medical care

In our survey, over half of people with undocumented status reported difficulty getting medical care (n=53) compared to less than one-third of people with protected status (n=19) and 12% of those with citizenship (n=7).

One person in Rio Grande Valley whom we interviewed described:

There are times when many people who don’t have documentation . . . may not have enough to insure the car or the car has a broken light and that’s why they can’t go to the clinic for care because they are scared, right? . . . That’s why a lot of people, if they are sick, they don’t want to go to the doctor because they say, “No, I’ll get better soon,” like with homemade remedies and they don’t go out because they are also afraid to.” Letty Sanchez, business owner, Rio Grande Valley