Fear Not? The Psychological Impact of the Fight over Deferred Action

On Wednesday (Jan. 14), the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funding appropriations with riders that would in essence repeal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the new deferred action program President Obama announced last fall.

In the aftermath of the House’s vote, Vox’s Dara Lind wrote, “What’s interesting about these amendments is that they would return to a world where unauthorized immigrants lived in constant fear of deportation.” This insight — how governmental policy can affect the psychological well-being of immigrants and their families — is all too often an afterthought in a debate primarily focused on partisan politics and arcane legal technicalities. But the outcome of this political and legal fight will affect the mental well-being of immigrants and their families significantly.

Living in the United States as an undocumented immigrant has negative psychological ramifications for undocumented immigrants and their families. Both live in constant fear of deportation and family separation.

Undocumented immigrants are forced to live in the shadows to avoid detection, worrying that any time they leave home, they could be stopped and have their immigration status discovered. A simple trip to work or the supermarket could result in removal proceedings and separation from one’s family. Accordingly, many undocumented immigrants suffer from high levels of stress and anxiety as a result of their working conditions, financial situations and fear of deportation.[1]

While undocumented status has a significant impact on the mental health of undocumented immigrants, it also has a profound impact on their immediate relatives, especially their children. U.S. citizen children or legal permanent resident children in mixed families face significant psychological trauma from the uncertainty of their family situation. This creates psychological stress for families, which deferred action will help alleviate.

DACA recipients — whose parents do not necessarily qualify for this new round of deferred action — also are anxious. A study of DACA recipients found that 76 percent feared that someone close to them would be deported.[2]Other studies have shown that a parent’s unauthorized status is associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression, especially in adolescents.[3]

Not surprisingly, the removal of a parent has the most significant negative impact on the psychological well-being of undocumented immigrants’ children.[4] Parental removal is connected to increased instances of behavioral issues, anxiety and depression in the affected children. Additionally, the removal of a parent can place an extraordinary burden on older children, as they are often expected to care for their younger siblings in their parents’ absence.[5]These stresses can lead to poor academic performance, stunted emotional development and other significant psychological harms. [6]

By protecting parents and family members of children with permanent status or citizenship from deportation, thereby removing the threat of deportation of loved ones, deferred action will limit these harmful psychological outcomes. Under President Obama’s executive action, for at least three years, the children of those qualifying for Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) will not have to experience the removal of one or both of their parents and will not have to deal with the stress and uncertainty of a parent leaving home and never coming back after being deported.

Deferred action will help mitigate the psychological impact of undocumented status for some immigrants and their families by providing some stability, albeit temporary, and by relieving some of their daily stress and anxiety. Congress should work to pass legislation that would address these problems permanently rather than legislation that seeks to undo the temporary benefits and relief deferred action brings to immigrant families.

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[1] Hirokazu Yoshikawa and Ariel Kalil, “The Effects of Parental Undocumented Status on the Developmental Contexts of Young Children in Immigrant Families,” Child Development Perspectives 5, no. 4 (2011), 295.

[2] Roberto G. Gonzales and Angie M. Bautista-Chavez, Two Years and Counting: Assessing the Growing Power of DACA, 9 (Washington, D.C.: American Immigration Council, 2014),

[3] Hirokazu Yoshikawa and Jenya Kholoptseva, Unauthorized Immigrant Parents and Their Children’s Development: A Summary of the Evidence (Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute, March 2013), 4.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Carola Suárez-Orozco, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, Robert T. Teranishi, Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco, “Growing Up in the Shadows: The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status,” Harvard Educational Review 81, no. 3 (2011), 450.

[6] Ibid., 5-6.

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