Immigration is a subject many tend to proselytize about, but what’s rarely spoken of are the negative effects of the broken immigration system in the United States and its lasting impact on children, many of them citizens of this country.
Thousands of children who have been separated from their parents as the result of a broken immigration system are living with severe, lifelong consequences.
Such was Alondra’s case, who, at the age of 6, suffered the abrupt separation from her mother, Andrea Molina. Molina was arrested by the Department of Immigration and Customs (ICE) following a minor traffic infraction, both Alondra and her sister Michelle, 14, were left in their grandparents’ care.
Molina had taken the girls to school and was on her way home. “I had promised my daughter that we would go out for dinner after I picked her up,” the mother said. But that didn’t happen. On the contrary, Alondra did not see her mother again until after a month.
The young mother spent nearly a month at the immigration detention center in Aurora. During that time, she had no contact with her daughters. Upon being released, the woman was received by the youngest of her children, who did not leave her side after this incident. “When I saw my baby girl, I realized that her look had changed. She had a sad face,” Molina remembered.
That was not the only thing that had changed in Alondra. She began to suffer from nightmares, anxiety, constant headaches and stomach aches. She had a sudden weight gain and became obese. After multiple doctor’s visits, she was evaluated by a psychologist and diagnosed with separation anxiety and abandonment.
The damage the separation caused in Alondra also led her to develop depression, as well as difficulty with personal relationships, which in turn, negatively impacted her development through puberty. Alondra became a constant victim of bullying and even presented suicidal thoughts.
Dr. Shaayestah Merchant, a Denver psychologist who is a first-generation immigrant from India and specializes in immigration-related cases, indicates that when a child is separated from his or her parents abruptly, he or she is affected in multiple ways, leading them to experience “depression, anxiety, feelings of mourning, loss, sadness… This also affects their basic functions such as sleep, appetite and behavior,” she said.
Reports show that children who have experienced the detention or deportation of their parents experienced at least four adverse behavior changes during the six months following the arrest. Many of them cry constantly, feel afraid more often, change their eating and sleeping habits and are more nervous, withdrawn, angry or aggressive.
These factors can become symptoms of toxic stress, which, according to a report by the BBC, is a reaction to an adversity that is strong, frequent and prolonged in time, and in which the proper company of an adult is not received. According to this report, “The body and the brain are put on alert: adrenaline is produced, palpitations increase, and more hormones are secreted, such as cortisol.” It can even “decrease neuronal connections” and “increase the risk and frequency of infections.”
Moreover, “children can develop learning problems, since many of them experience this separation as traumatic, which causes adverse academic and social problems,” the psychologist said. In addition, many present constant physical complaints such as headaches, stomach, ulcers, digestive problems, etc.
These types of events can have a long-term impact, even to maturity, since many of them have a higher risk of developing physical illnesses and vices such as alcoholism or drug use in adulthood. The younger the child, the more he or she is likely to be affected.
Although there is no way to prevent the psychological damage caused by the separation or the toxic stress that these problems cause to the children, the professional recommends that children be warned of what may happen, which could help them to be more prepared.
According to recent statistics in the United States, approximately 4.1 million children under the age of 18 and citizens of this country live with at least one undocumented parent. During 2011-2013, almost one million citizen children experienced the arrest or deportation of one of their parents. Many of them even presented post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which manifests with symptoms such as flashbacks, difficulty sleeping or nightmares, feelings of loneliness, explosions of anger, and feelings of worry, guilt or sadness.
Alondra, who is now a pre-diabetic adolescent, continues to struggle in the aftermath of her mother’s detention and plans to join different movements that fight for a comprehensive immigration reform to end the anguish that thousands of U.S. citizen children and children of immigrants experience.
Featured photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images