I'll never forget the day when children came home from school to no parents. It was December 2006, shortly before Christmas, in a town in northeastern Colorado. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had conducted a raid at a local meatpacking plant, arresting hundreds of workers who were unable to provide documentation that authorized their legal presence in the United States. Parents were deported, their children left behind.
Deportation is certainly not a new issue, but it has markedly increased in recent decades, with more than 340,000 people deported last year, some of whom call Alaska home. Most people who are deported have lived in the U.S. for longer than a decade and many are parents or caregivers of U.S. citizens. The cascading effects of deportation are felt not only by those deported, but by their families and communities — all of us. A group of psychologists from across the nation recently reviewed a large body of research on the effects of U.S. immigration policy, which the Society for Community Research and Action, a division of the American Psychological Association, published in a policy brief. What we found constitutes a public mental health crisis:
Deportation hurts individuals. Nearly 4 in 5 families screened in family detention centers have a ''credible fear'' of persecution. Many of those deported are forced to return to dangerous places, which has resulted in the kidnapping, torture, rape, and murder of some. Those deported also often struggle to support their families from afar and maintain contact with them.
Deportation hurts families. Ten percent of U.S. families with children have at least one family member who lacks citizenship, and 5.9 million children have at least one caregiver who lacks the authorization to live in the country. Children whose caregivers are deported become more at-risk for not having enough food to eat, a consistent home to live in, and enough money to make ends meet. Remaining caregivers must often work longer hours, leaving less quality time for their children. Older school-aged children frequently become primary caregivers of their younger siblings and/or work to support the family, impacting their own academic achievement. Children have many symptoms of psychological distress following a caregiver's deportation, including eating and sleeping changes, anxiety, sadness, anger, and withdrawal. Even if a family is ultimately reunited, these issues often remain.
Deportation hurts communities. After immigration raids and deportations, immigrant community members often become more fearful and mistrustful of public institutions. They are less likely to contact the police for any reason, including to report a crime. They become less likely to seek needed medical treatment, participate in schools and churches, and access other vital social services. Immigrant adults are especially emotionally taxed following deportations and threats of deportation, and their increased stress has been linked to cardiovascular risk factors. Immigrant children living in communities where immigration raids have taken place feel abandoned, isolated, fearful, traumatized, and depressed. And, children, regardless of legal immigration status, experience fear and shame regarding deportation, which impacts their sense of self and well-being. Disconnection of our fellow community members from public life harms our communities.
We need to take a public health perspective on deportation, recognizing its direct and indirect impacts on community members. We should make changes across the nation and in our local communities to mitigate the widespread consequences of deportation on all of us. And, we should account for U.S.-born children's best interests.
At the federal level, we should create a human rights framework in our immigration policy. We should help families stay together through comprehensive immigration reform that keeps families together and ends the threat of deportation. In our communities, we should prioritize safety and inclusion for all families, regardless of immigration status.
Our local and state law enforcement should not detain people solely for immigration violations and should not be involved in federal immigration enforcement, so that all community members may contact public safety officials as needed. Our schools, places of worship and community organizations should build supportive social networks that create a sense of belonging, promote mental health and healing, and support collective political action. As Alaskans, we should all take action to counter the harmful effects of deportation and forced separation on our fellow community members and communities.
Sara Buckingham is an Assistant Professor of Clinical-Community Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. You can read the full policy statement adopted by the Society for Community Research and Action, a division of the American Psychological Association here.
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