DREAM Deferred: The Psychological Repercussions of Uncertain Futures

Facing Loss of Undocumented Immigrant Protections, Latino Community in Survival Mode

Earlier last month, the Trump administration announced that it will begin phasing out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary deportation relief to approximately 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and who are in good standing with the law. The threat of deportation and family separation is a constant source of anxiety in immigrant communities.

To shed light on the psychological impacts of the withdrawal of DACA as well as the threat of family separation, we sat down with Dr. Miguel Gallardo, licensed clinical psychologist, professor at Pepperdine University and director of Aliento, The Center for Latina/o Communities at Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology (GSEP). Dr. Gallardo shared his experiences responding to the needs of undocumented immigrants and their families.

With changes in deportation policies signaling that this administration will take a harder stance on immigration, how are you seeing immigrant communities respond?

There’s a range of mixed emotions, including fear, sadness, helplessness and hopelessness. These unknowns have created a lot of anxiety and stress for communities. What is all of this going to mean, and what is going to happen next?

In the instance of DACA, we knew that it was a temporary solution to deal with the much larger issue of creating immigration laws that are going to protect people’s rights. It was a Band-Aid to a certain degree that was very helpful in easing a lot of people’s anxiety and fears.

But people existed before DACA. While there is a lot of fear, stress, anxiety and uncertainty about what’s going to happen, people are relying on existing coping skills and strategies that they were utilizing before DACA existed. So, there’s also this strong sense of resiliency. Their survival skills are coming out. In some ways, we find that a lot of individuals are focusing their anxiety and angst and trying to channel it into doing something productive and meaningful that will create long-term solutions, not only for themselves but also for other immigrant communities.

Many people talk about undocumented communities, including dreamers, living in limbo. What kind of psychological impact does living with the uncertainty of your immigration status have on dreamers and their families?

A lot of individuals are much more reluctant to live their lives freely at this moment in time because they fear deportation or being racially profiled. There’s not a day that goes by that people aren’t thinking about this; they’re always worried about what’s going to happen to them or their family members.

It is interesting to note that family members may have different statuses here. Some may be residents. Some may be citizens. Some may not have any documentation at all. These kinds of situations create very unusual dynamics among family members. A lot of people felt like their other family members were safe and secure. And now we have family members who are scared to death for some of their siblings or parents.

Families are also making plans. They are talking to their kids and their siblings about what will happen if they get deported or detained. It’s creating a different dialogue and a discourse, not only within families but also within the communities that they reside in.

Many immigrants also live in fear of deportation raids. What are the effects of raids on immigrant communities?

These communities are either being traumatized for the first time or are more than likely being re-traumatized from previous experiences. Many have already experienced a great deal of trauma from their immigration journeys to the United States, from trying to achieve the “American Dream,” which in many ways is unattainable for these communities, and from being undocumented and having to negotiate and figure out how to endure daily life. They are trying their best to desperately survive those situations.

It’s also very sad when we look at the children of a parent who is being detained or deported. It’s creating a disconnect within families. It’s tearing family relationships apart and creating anxiety and depression in this younger generation – from young kids all the way through adolescents and young adults.

The raids are absolutely traumatizing, and they are also dehumanizing for people. When we dehumanize people, it is a lot easier for us to disconnect from the fact that we are dealing with another human being. And anytime we put numbers or statistics on people, we are further distancing ourselves from seeing the connections among human beings.

What kind of messages do policies that target immigrants send to the broader American population?

They send the message that certain people are not welcome in the United States. We have this unusual discourse and dialogue happening right now in this country that has given people the belief that they have permission to engage in hateful, oppressive and discriminatory acts and behaviors because of political rhetoric and the political climate. And these actions have been directed toward Latino individuals more than others.

The message that people hear is that we are taking advantage of the system and that we are trying to break laws. For communities here in the United States who may fall on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, who are really struggling with finances on a daily basis, it really engenders this animosity and resentment toward immigrant communities because they question why we, as a country, should be helping “these people” when there are so many people suffering already in the United States. As a result, and when combined with our political climate, we are seeing overt acts of hate and discrimination as much today as we ever have in the history of this country, and maybe even more so. I think it’s fair to say that our political leaders at this point in time are certainly creating a culture of us-versus-them and increasing the disparities that exist between certain communities and others with some level of intentionality.

What kinds of challenges do psychologists who work with undocumented immigrants face in a constantly changing landscape of immigration policy?

Our roles need to expand and change. Individual therapy can be very helpful for people. It is particularly helpful for someone who is experiencing the range of emotions that I addressed earlier. Creating a space for individuals to talk about and try to understand what they are feeling and experiencing can be very helpful.

But the concern I have about solely relying on individual therapy as a means to support community members is that individual therapy unintentionally reinforces this notion that the individual is the cause of, and the only solution to, addressing what their issues and challenges might be. If we think about what’s happening now in the United States, people are not creating the stress and anxiety that they are feeling. It’s the political climate and the political system. We need to make sure we are not reinforcing the idea that the individual is the cause of his or her stress or anxiety.

We need to go out to the communities and intervene on a communal level to help people heal in connection with each other. We know from research that people get worse in isolation and heal when connected to others, and this is particularly true for Latinos. Psychologists need to go to the places where our community members feel safe and provide workshops and psychoeducation on how to deal with stress and anxiety. Educational workshops can give them a sense of hope and a sense of power and control over their lives. Our approach needs to be multifaceted, and it needs to address many different levels – from the individual all the way to the communal.

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Citation for this content: OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, the online clinical psychology master's program from Pepperdine University.