Undocumented Latinx migrants ‘have endured so much trauma’

Undocumented Latinx migrants ‘have endured so much trauma’


Written by Maria Cohut, Ph.D. on July 24, 2020 — Fact checked by Carolyn Robertson

Undocumented migrants in the United States — a majority of whom are Latinx — face high rates of mental health problems but receive little or no formal support. In an exclusive interview, Prof. Luz Maria Garcini, an expert in the healthcare needs of Latinx families, tells us more about this issue, and why it is so important.


Share on Pinterest‘They have endured so much trauma over a long time and in many different areas of their lives,’ Prof. Garcini on undocumented migrants.
Image credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

There are an estimated 11,300,000 undocumented migrants living and working in the U.S., most of whom come from regions of Mexico and Central America.

The reasons why these individuals emigrate without going through the typical legal processes are manifold, including financial precarity and exposure to violence.

Past experiences of adversity and trauma, as well as present worries stemming from their undocumented status, can fuel struggles with mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety.

Prof. Luz Maria Garcini, who is an assistant professor at the Center for Research to Advance Community Health at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, as well as a faculty scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, has been studying the issues confronting Latinx migrants for many years.

In a study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology in 2017, Prof. Garcini and her collaborators report that undocumented Mexican migrants who live in high risk neighborhoods face a greater risk of anxiety and depression than the general U.S. population.

Medical News Today has spoken to Prof. Garcini to find out more about the causes behind undocumented migrants’ mental health troubles, as well as what prevents them from accessing formal support, and how decision-makers could improve this situation.

We have lightly edited the interview transcript for clarity.

‘The […] resilience they have is impressive’

MNT: Why would you say that you saw such disproportionately high rates of anxiety and depression among Mexican migrants with undocumented status compared with the general population? What kind of experiences might lead to that effect?

Prof. Luz Maria Garcini: One of the first things that I would like to emphasize is to try to avoid stigmatizing these populations. They’re highly resilient within the context of the many chronic and compounded stressors that they’re living [with].

So, the amount of resilience that they have is impressive. However, because they have endured so much trauma over a long time and in many different areas of their lives, you know, it is expected, obviously, that they’re going to present with symptoms of depression [or] with symptoms of anxiety.

And these experiences have not only happened within a certain amount of time, but they started premigration before they left their countries [of origin]. That’s why they left because they did not feel safe because many did not have resources; many had to be separated from their families, so the stress comes from a very, very long time [before].

And we have differences in those populations because, if you think about it, we have people migrating from Central America; they have to cross two borders — and the border between Central America and Mexico is brutal.

If we think of the border between the U.S. and Mexico, even that southern border is even more terrifying, and having to cross to Mexico within the current conditions — it’s terrifying. So you can imagine also the stress and the trauma of having to risk your life.

And then, one of the other things that we have found is that there is a lot of trauma in migration, really, that lasts [even] once they live in the U.S., which is very sad. Because, if you think about it, they thought [they were] reaching [a] safe haven, and they didn’t; because they have to live hidden; because they cannot denounce exploitation; because they’re living in constant fear of being separated, of being deported.

You know, they’re abused all the time. Think about women who are preys of domestic violence situations that can’t go get help.

And now, right now, with the current pandemic that we’re facing, it is terrifying, because they’re the ones at the forefront, doing a lot of the [essential] jobs, but they don’t have access to healthcare.

So, if you get sick, you can’t get treatment. How [much] more life threatening can it get than that?

And that is a constant, living with your life [in] constant uncertainty. And being willing to risk it. That, I think, is why we’re seeing a lot of this [trauma].

Now, one caveat is [that] the research that you mentioned [Prof. Garcini’s 2017 study] — that was done previous to the current administration, so you can only imagine that with the current administration and with the current pandemic, those numbers [of migrants with depression and anxiety] are probably skyrocketing.

And, it’s very concerning, because their access to mental health services, and their knowledge about what mental health services mean, is very limited.

MNT: Can you tell us a little about which aspects of the current administration are the ones that are likely to jeopardize the health and safety of undocumented migrants?

Prof. Luz Maria Garcini: One of them is the rhetoric. Undocumented immigrants have been labeled as an undesirable community, have been stigmatized as criminals, […] [portrayed as] taking away jobs, which we know by evidence that it’s not true, because the kind of jobs they do, you know, we have trouble finding other populations that will do [them].

So, there is a lot of stigma. They’ve been labeled as criminals, as thieves. That has damaged this community. You can only imagine what that does for your self-image as an immigrant.

The other one is the actions, the constant threat against the community, and we saw that with the action around the DACA [Deferred Action for Children Arrivals] recipients, where they’re being held in a limbo about their temporary protected status being taken away in the midst of a pandemic.

Now, within the pandemic, when they closed borders, they’ve been seized and labeled as disease carriers. So there are so many layers.

Just seeing what they do to your community and the people when they’re held in cages [in detention centers], the family separation, […] the deportations… I mean, within this pandemic, there was a time when there were 10,000 deportations that happened in the midst of [it].

So there is a lot of damage, and there is a lot of mistrust in the community, particularly when, all of a sudden, they [the migrants] start hearing that they’re essential to the workforce.

So that dichotomy is like, “Oh, so now they want me to go out there and pick up food and do service jobs, and now I’m essential, but I’m not worthy of your country.” So it creates a lot of hurt, a lot of confusion, and that’s what, I think, is causing a lot of damage.

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