Research Shows a Mental Health Crisis for Immigrants

By Jenna Anderson

When Esmeralda Torres saw the border patrol agent tailgating her, she was afraid, even though she is a citizen. 

Torres, 36, was born in Detroit. She said her parents emigrated from Mexico when they were teenagers. She grew up in Mexicantown and, with her husband, is raising their three children, soon to be four.  

Her hometown is changing. “Mexicantown is becoming a ghost town,” Torres said. “It’s increased ever since Trump came into office. They’re taking them and separating them. It’s horrible. They’re everywhere.” 

She said she and her husband are lucky because they are both legal. Even so, they are afraid. She said this fear is even worse for undocumented immigrants. She estimates that 8 out of 10 of her neighbors are unauthorized. 

For many immigrants, the process of coming to America and adapting to a new environment brings mental health challenges. There is evidence the current climate is worse than in the past. Recently, immigrants have been exhibiting general mental health challenges, and this has prompted an increase in research and outreach. 

University of Michigan professor Paul J. Fleming published research on this subject with several colleagues July 15. They investigated the impact of the 2016 election on the health of immigrants in Southeast Michigan. One major finding was an increase in fear. 

“The Trump administration has increased the number of ICE officers, raids, and is targeting a wider range of immigrants than previous administrations,” Fleming said in an email. “That, coupled with the anti-immigrant rhetoric from the president and other policy-makers, contributes to a climate of fear for immigrant families.”  

“The mental health impacts go beyond undocumented individuals,” he said. “The climate of fear has spillover effects.” 

Fleming said recent threats of “raids are just one more example of how this administration conducts immigration enforcement in a way that is intended to maximize fear and anxiety.” 

In New York, Gregory Acevedo of Fordham University also said current policies hurt immigrants’ mental health. 

“Maybe you made it across the border through treacherous trek, almost lost your life. You got in. Now you’ve got that trauma,” Acevedo said. “Before it can even be dealt with, you’re now in an environment of intense hostility and instability.” 

He said America’s poor reception of immigrants causes paranoia, anxiety and depression. 

“This was an environment that didn’t just get created by the Trump administration,” Acevedo said. “Obama was dubbed the ‘Deporter in Chief’ but there’s no doubt that Trump’s policies are more hostile. They’re meant to strike fear.” 

About a year ago, the New York Immigration Coalition started to study the effect of Trump’s immigration policies. Acevedo is one of the researchers, and he is joined by government officials and community members. Acevedo said they are seeing signs that the mental state of immigrants is weakening. 

Luz M. Garcini of Rice University is conducting a study to examine the mental and physical health of immigrants in Texas and California. She and a team of researchers are comparing the results to a study performed during President Obama’s administration. 

“In the study we’re doing, 30% of undocumented immigrants, ages 18 to 25, reported having recent thoughts of death,” she said. The team did not see this result in the first study under Obama. “There is a lot of fear in the community,” she said. 

For accuracy, the team is using a control group of documented immigrants of the same age and gender. She said they had a difficult time recruiting those subjects because they are afraid of being associated with unauthorized immigrants. 

“It’s not only the undocumented immigrants that are afraid,” Garcini said. “It’s spreading.” 

Also in California, Carolina Valle is conducting follow-up research to a 2018 study titled, “Accessing Mental Health in the Shadows.” She completed this study with her team from California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. Valle is a policy manager for this organization. The group investigated the ability of undocumented immigrants to access mental health support. 

“Access to care is more difficult for this population,” Valle said. “We are in a unique time where this community is being impacted, but the more important conversation is the access to care.” 

They also found the mental health of immigrants was at a low. 

“We’ve heard from our partners on the ground that there’s a huge increase in anxiety, isolation, stress, pressure,” she said. 

As the mental health of immigrants declines, the number of programs to support them grows. 

Cindy Eggleton, co-founder and CEO of Brilliant Detroit, has seen the distress of the families she serves. Brilliant Detroit is a non-profit that provides community programs for high-need Detroit neighborhoods. Eggleton said they always provide technical support for the families in Mexicantown but now see a need for mental health support, too. 

When she considered the work being done for immigrants, Eggleton said, “What they’re doing is, ‘Here’s your rights, lock your door,’ but they’re not thinking about all the mental health issues.” 

To fill the gap, Brilliant Detroit brings in counselors from the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center in South Carolina. Also, this summer Wayne State University psychology graduate students provided counseling at Brilliant Detroit locations. 

Torres is a neighborhood engagement manager for Brilliant Detroit. As a lifelong resident, she is dedicated to the betterment of Mexicantown. 

“I really love the community,” she said. “We’re an immigrant city. I have a sense of my culture and ethnicity.” 




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