Family Consequences of Detention/Deportation: Effects on Finances, Health, and Well-Being

Today, an array of Trump Administration policies are affecting immigrant families. A previous Kaiser Family Foundation report showed that the current immigration policy environment significantly increased fear and uncertainty among immigrant families and had wide-ranging negative impacts on their health and well-being. This report builds on that work by exploring the direct impacts of detention and deportation on family finances, health, and well-being. The findings are based on interviews with 20 families that recently had a family member detained or deported and 12 legal services providers, health centers, educators, and community organizations serving immigrant families conducted in California, Texas, and Washington, DC during Summer 2018. Most family respondents were Hispanic women with children in the household; immigrants in the families primarily came to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America.

When a family member is detained or deported, #immigrant families often face financial hardship, physical and emotional health consequences and new fears of engaging with public programs.

Sudden and Severe Financial Hardship

Families were left struggling to pay their bills, and many are having trouble putting food on the table. Many families reported problems affording enough food due to the loss of their family member’s income, and some adults were going hungry so their children could eat. A number also faced unstable housing situations and were worried about how they were going to pay the next month’s rent. Although remaining adults sought to increase work hours to fill in lost income, many did not have childcare to cover increased hours. Some families also faced gaps in support and care for older parents. Stakeholders said that, in some cases, individuals returned to an abusive relationship or suffered poor working conditions or exploitation by an employer because their income needs were so urgent and they had no other options.

“Sometimes I would skip a meal so that my kids could eat.” Spouse/Partner of Detained/Deported Individual, DC Area

“Six months we were homeless… One day here, one day there, we woke up sleeping with relatives…” Spouse/Partner of Detained/Deported Individual, Los Angeles, CA

Disruption to Children’s Routines and Relationships

Children are spending more time inside and participating in fewer activities because remaining adults are working all the time and/or more fearful of spending time outside. Some families reported that children became angry or resentful about remaining adults working all the time. Families and stakeholders also noted that some parents have less patience with their children because of increased work and stress. In some families, older children took on jobs or increased roles caring for siblings. Stakeholders also noted that older children often take on challenging roles advocating and translating for their parents. A number of families noted that older children changed their plans for the future, for example, getting a job instead of joining the armed forces or declining acceptance to a university.

“I cannot take them to the park; I cannot take them outside…so they stay at home with their video games.” Spouse/Partner of Detained/Deported Individual, Fresno, CA

“She’s still interested in going to the armed forces, but what’s stopping her is wanting to help bring more money home.” Spouse/Partner of Detained/Deported Individual, Los Angeles, CA

Extreme Stress, Anxiety, and Depression

Nearly all respondents appeared to be experiencing symptoms of depression, with the majority having a positive score on a clinical depression-screening tool. They described feeling extreme sadness and, in some cases, desperation. A few said they have had suicidal thoughts. Many reported problems eating and sleeping as well as stomachaches and headaches. Several said that chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension have gotten worse due to increased stress and anxiety. The emotional trauma of being separated from their family member sometimes compounded previous trauma individuals experienced in their home countries or during their journey to the U.S.

“Sometimes…I’ve thought about not living anymore. I want this to be over now! But, then my kids…motivate me. Because they’re the main thing that keeps me going.” Spouse/Partner of Detained/Deported Individual, Los Angeles, CA

“…my diabetes got a lot worse, a lot. My cholesterol and diabetes both got worse…” Spouse/Partner of Detained/Deported Individual, DC Area

Children also had increased mental health issues and behavioral changes that stakeholders stressed will have long-term negative impacts on their health. Children became sad and anxious, crying and frequently asking for the missing family member. They developed problems eating and sleeping, experienced developmental regressions, and became more isolated and withdrawn. Stakeholders expressed major concerns about the long-term impacts for children, referencing research showing that stress and trauma in children lead to poor long-term mental and physical health outcomes.

“…my youngest daughter is destroyed emotionally, devastated. She cries, dreams about it. She wants her dad and doesn’t have him.” Spouse/Partner of Detained/Deported Individual, DC Area

“There’s a lot of studies that indicate just the simple stress alone, the anxiety alone can, they can preclude the patient…[to] be more susceptible to chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.” Health Center, TX

Abrupt Declines in School Performance

Families and stakeholders said that children had more difficulty paying attention in school due to stress and worries as well as problems sleeping. One educator noted that, physiologically, it is more difficult for children to learn because they cannot access the correct area of their brain when they are in a state of stress and experiencing trauma. Stakeholders noted that teachers are spending more time focused on reassuring and calming students, which takes away time spent on academics. Stakeholders also had concerns about the negative impacts on children’s long-term educational attainment and future success as adults.

“…it just creates a very bleak future for some of our young people…we’re creating such…an environment of hostility and discouragement for our students that’s basically going to affect generations to come, I mean we’re going to have students that perhaps are not interested in going to college, are not interested in furthering their education…” Educator, CA

Fear of Accessing Public Programs

Families have growing fears about participating in health, nutrition, and other programs. Families were scared that accessing services could jeopardize the chances of having their detained or deported family member released or allowed to return to the U.S. They also feared it could prevent themselves from obtaining legal status or citizenship in the future and/or put others at risk for deportation. As such, many were not participating in food assistance or other programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Free or Reduced Price Lunch, even though they were having problems affording food and their U.S.-born children would likely qualify. Stakeholders also reported declines in public program participation as well as use of other services. They noted that potential changes to public charge policies are escalating fears, even among legal permanent residents and citizens.

“I used to get Medicaid and the food stamps, but as I wanted to get my legal status, they even say that if you ask for help from the government, you’ll be denied legal status.” Mother of Detained/Deported Individual, Houston, TX

“Even clients that I am now giving them their work permits or their green cards and they are eligible for public benefits, they’re very hesitant to get anything.” Legal Services Provider, CA

Gaps in Support and Resources

Despite significant mental health needs, most families were not receiving mental health care. Families and stakeholders pointed to lack of coverage among adults, limited availability of providers, stigma associated with mental health care within the Latino community, and fear of sharing information with others as barriers to care. Teachers and schools served as an important link to counseling for some families. However, stakeholders noted that schools do not have the resources to meet the growing needs.

“[My granddaughter] has a good doctor, but we don’t want to say much to doctors because then they start to do some kind of investigations.” Mother of Detained/Deported Individual, Sunnyvale, CA

Families face major gaps in legal help and other assistance. Due to lack of sufficient legal services, many families are going without representation or going into debt for thousands of dollars to pay private attorneys. Stakeholders said that the lack of legal services makes families susceptible to fraud and limits their chances for successful outcomes with their cases. Stakeholders stressed that expanding legal resources is a crucial priority. Further, although some families received help from charities, churches, and community organizations, families and stakeholders pointed to gaps in financial, food, and housing assistance for families, particularly as they are increasingly fearful of enrolling in public programs.

“…families need lawyers. I think that representation is the most urgent need to fill….” Legal Services Provider, CA

Fear and Uncertainty for the Future

Many families felt trapped without any good options and apprehensive about their future. Many were uncertain about their future and did not know if they would remain in the U.S. For some, returning to their country of origin is not an option because it would be too dangerous. Families and stakeholders reported growing concerns among DACA recipients and individuals losing TPS status, who are fearful that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will target them when they lose status because the government has their information. They fear having to return to a country to which they have no connection since they have lived in the U.S. for decades and established their lives and families here.

“So a lot of my TPS clients…are just devastated. They just feel that the country has turned their backs on them, that they have been in this community for some of them 25 years.” Legal Services Provider, TX

Stakeholders highlighted the resilience of families amid their challenging circumstances. They underscored families’ continued focus on working toward a better future for themselves and their children despite the challenges they face. They also stressed that many families have made huge sacrifices and overcome major obstacles to get to the U.S. with the hope of providing a better future for their children.

“…they’re really resilient… they’re still prioritizing their children, their children’s education, even their own education…it’s amazing everything that’s happening and how resilient they continue to be.” Health Center, CA

These findings show that detention or deportation has major multigenerational effects across families and the broader community. Families face severe financial hardship while at the same time they are dealing with the emotional trauma of being separated from their loved one. Loss of the family member from the home significantly disrupts children’s lives and has major negative impacts on their mental and emotional health that compromise their ability to learn and perform in school and research suggests will lead to poor long-term physical and mental health outcomes. See Box 1, next page, for one family’s story.

Text Box 1: One Family’s Story

“T” came to the U.S. from Mexico in 2001. As a domestic violence survivor, she obtained a U visa and eventually legal permanent residency (a “green card”) in 2014. After arriving in the U.S., she met her current husband, who also is from Mexico. “T” has five children ranging from age 2 to 17. Four were born in the U.S., and the oldest is a legal permanent resident. In 2017, “T’s” husband went to Mexico for an appointment as part of his process to apply for residency. Immigration officials denied him re-entry into the U.S. due to gaps in his paperwork, and he must wait 10 years before he may be able to return.

After being separated from her husband, “T” could not get by on only her income, especially without any help to watch her children. Left with no good options, she sent the youngest children to live with their father in Mexico and began working two jobs. She starts her day in a chicken packing factory from 5:00am-4:15pm and then cleans a church from 5:00 to 10:00pm. Her husband cannot work because he is caring for the children, so she took out a loan to support him and the children in Mexico. She owes between $10,000-$15,000 on her loan.

Even working two jobs, “T” struggles to keep up with her bills. She is at risk for having her water and electricity cut off and does not know how she will pay the next month’s rent for the small one-bedroom apartment she lives in with her three older children. She sometimes eats less and goes hungry because she does not have enough money for food.

“T” is very depressed and agonizes over being separated from her husband and her children. She is in a state of desperation and, at times, wonders how she can continue to live. “T” fears sharing her feelings with her doctor at the clinic, because she worries it will result in having her children taken away.

The children do not want to go to school and have lost all motivation to get ahead. All three who are still in the U.S. have had their grades go down. The children are stressed and depressed, and the 9 year old has begun wetting the bed. They accuse “T” of wanting to work instead of spending time with them. The older children have become more rebellious and withdrawn. Her eldest daughter always dreamed of going into the armed forces, but now feels she needs to get a job to help support the family.

The family lost their health coverage that they used to have through her husband’s work. The children now have Medicaid, but “T” became uninsured. Despite her major financial challenges, she has not enrolled in any other programs. She fears that use of some programs could affect her ability to obtain citizenship and that she would have to pay the government back for services used in the future.

“T” prays that her husband will obtain a pardon and be able to return without waiting 10 years. She fears for the safety of her husband and children in Mexico due to the drugs and violence in the area. She is working with an attorney that she found through a priest at the church she cleans. The church has also provided her financial support and help with food, which has helped get her through her toughest times.

Issue Brief

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