• Edición impresa de Marzo 4, 2014

After Parents’ Deportation, U.S. Children Face Mental Struggles

NEW YORK, N.Y.— Myrna Orozco will never forget the phone call she got from her cousin in October 2011.

Immigration officials had arrested her father and taken him to a detention center in Kansas City, where the family was living at the time.

“I was in shock,” she said. “I immediately thought about my mother and my younger siblings, and what was going to happen to all of us.”

What made it even more frightening for Orozco was her own immigration status. She was the only undocumented child among four siblings. Now 23, Orozco says she has never felt as scared and helpless as when she heard the bad news.

Juan – the name the family asked to be used out of fear of further legal trouble – had been deported previously to his native Mexico, but he reentered the United States without permission. When he was arrested again in 2011, he was charged with the federal crime of illegal reentry. Juan has been serving a five-year imprisonment and will most likely be deported after completing his sentence.

Her fatherʼs detention had a ripple effect throughout the family. Anna, the youngest daughter, was 15 at the time. She began to behave badly, alternately acting withdrawn or clamoring for attention. Anna dropped out of school, Orozco says, and ran into legal trouble on different occasions, getting caught driving a car without a license, stealing her teacherʼs cell phone, and trying to break into someone’s house.

Researchers who have examined the mental health problems connected to forced family separations find a daunting web of factors at play, including economic conditions, family relationships, trauma, and childhood upbringing.

“The consequences of separating parents from children can include causing or exacerbating mental health problems such as depressive or anxiety disorders, but it’s worth remembering that there can be lots of effects which undermine healthy development and that they do so in an inter-related way,” said Dr. Schuyler Henderson, a pediatric and adolescent psychiatrist at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Henderson, who has studied the effects of parental deportation, said that mental health problems present themselves in many ways among children who are left behind.

“Kids respond differently depending upon factors including -- but not limited to -- their age, their resilience, how their other family members react and support them, and whether or not they can maintain contact with the deported parent,” he said.

U.S.-born children affected in large numbers

About 369,000 individuals were deported nationwide between October 2012 and September 2013. The federal government does not track how many of those deportees left children behind, but according to a Department of Homeland Security report [URL: content/uploads/2012/07/ICE-DEPORT-OF-PARENTS-OF-US-CIT-FY-2011.pdf] to Congress, in the six month period between January and June of 2011, more than 46,000 people with U.S.-born children were deported from the United States, or about 7,600 every month.

In December of 2012, the Applied Research Center, which focuses on immigration policies, asked the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency for records of all immigrants removed from the U.S. and leaving behind a U.S.-born child. Those records show that more than 200,000 deportees reported leaving behind U.S.-born children between July 2010 and December 2012, a rate of about 6,600 monthly.

In August 2013, ICE issued guidelines advising its agents to find out whether the immigrant being detained was a primary caregiver and to place detained parents in facilities near their children. The directive also allows the parents to make decisions about who will take care of their children in their absence. This follows President Obamaʼs announcement in 2011 that he wanted ICE to focus on deportations of criminals, although immigration experts have noted that non-criminal detainees continue to be deported in high numbers.

As the Living in the Shadows series unfolds, we welcome your ideas. You are part of the story too and we invite you to share your perspective and experiences by writing to



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