US Citizen Children of Mexican Immigrants Burdened by Family Separation, Discrimination and Mental Health Issues Amid Heightened Immigration Enforcement 

Immigration mother holding child's hand
Silhouette of mother and child
Silhouette of mother and child

A new study based on the Between the Lines research project — a two-year project between researchers at Drexel University and the Mexico section of the US-Mexico Border Health Commission — offers perspectives on the discrimination and trauma felt by immigrant children amid anti-immigrant rhetoric and family separation policies from 2019-2021. During in-depth interviews of 22 immigrant children — including children who’ve experienced parental deportation and children at risk of parental deportation – children shared their discrimination experiences and their perception of how their mental health was impacted by experiencing or fearing a parent’s deportation.

This study of immigrant children — a population rarely surveyed in academic literature – argues for more ‘family friendly’ immigration reform. The findings are published in the journal Latino Studies, by researchers at the Dornsife School of Public Health, in collaboration with researchers at the Mexico Section of the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission, University of Texas at Austin, University of California at Merced, and several nonprofit organizations in Philadelphia. Though the study included perspectives of a nonrandom sample of Mexican immigrant families, so it is not generalizable for all Latino subgroups who may face family separation, the authors say the findings provide advice for reforms to immigration policy and care for immigrants in the United States. In the interview below, principal investigator Ana Martinez-Donate, PhD, a professor at the Dornsife School of Public Health, and lead author Jamile Tellez Lieberman, DrPH, who coordinated the study while she was a doctoral student at Dornsife School of Public Health and is currently a senior vice president at Esperanza, talk about their work over three years to recruit, build rapport and communicate with over 100 families who experienced or were at risk of parental deportation, some of the more surprising feedback they received from respondents (in a baseline survey and follow-up survey six months later), and if there is reason to be more optimistic about the state of immigration in the United States today.

What did you learn from these interviews about the impact that fear of a deportation or actual deportation of a parent can have on a child?

Tellez Lieberman: The anticipation and fear of the deportation of a parent, as well as the detainment/deportation event are both psychologically distressing and traumatic, but in different ways. In our study, the detainment and eventual deportation event was shocking for children and their families, leaving them completely devastated, similar to a violent event. Contrastingly, for children who did not experience the deportation of their parent or caregiver, the experience is one of prolonged dread, fear and worry that takes its toll over time. They spend their days and nights wondering if their parent or caregiver will come home. The added socio-political element, where the separation or the threat of being separated is connected to discriminatory immigration enforcement policies and a broader anti-immigrant/anti-Latino climate compounds the experiences of these children. The messaging behind these policies is that their beloved parents or caregivers are criminals and not welcome in this country no matter their circumstances, their histories, or their humanity.

Did any interviews stand out to you?

Martinez-Donate: For us, all the interviews stand out in different ways. We remember especially some interviews with children who did not experience deportation where the fear of this possibility surfaced strongly. It was clear to us that they spent a lot of energy trying to keep this fear at bay and not think about it or what it might mean for them. We were also very impressed with the resilience of many of the children who had experienced the deportation of a parent and the way in which they stood up to support the remaining caregiver and their siblings in the U.S.

Why are children’s perspectives so seldomly included in academic literature when it comes to immigration, and why are these voices so seldomly used to inform public health practices?

Martinez-Donate: Conducting the Between the Lines study gave us a great understanding of the practical difficulties of collecting data directly from children in these vulnerable families and on this extremely sensitive matter. Recruiting adults in families at risk for, or exposed to, parental deportation is already challenging because they are not easy to find and they are often distrustful of researchers. Even when parents or caregivers may be willing to participate, they may not feel comfortable letting their children talk to researchers for fear of the impact these conversations may have on them. For these reasons, studies like Between the Lines have to be designed and conducted in a highly ethical and trauma-informed way. We obtained the parent or caregiver’s consent, as well as the child’s consent, multiple times along the way. We also consulted and trained with child psychologists and other experts to ensure the way we spoke to children during the data collection was safe as well as scientifically rigorous. When needed, we connected families in our study with psychological services. All of that to say, it is not easy to collect data from children in these families, which helps explain why this is rarely seen in empirical literature. However, despite the challenges, it is absolutely crucial that we hear from children directly. We need to understand how children perceive and are impacted by what is going on in their environment. We also need to recognize that children have agency, that they are resilient and should have a voice in any interventions and reforms that will impact their lives. When the data is available, their perspectives can be incorporated into programs and services to support families at risk for, or exposed to parental deportation and can inform future immigration policies and enforcement practices. 

Were you surprised by the feedback you received? Was the avoidance of talking about deportation among comparison families who did not experience a parental deportation surprising, for example?

Martinez-Donate: For comparison children, we were somewhat surprised to hear that many were unaware of any plans made by their parents or adult family members in case detainment or deportation were to happen. It is possible that parents had a plan, but they did not communicate it to the children to protect them. We heard from participants that conversations about this possibility could be upsetting for children, so children and their caregivers may have avoided the topic intentionally. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that this was a small sample of families and the findings may have been different had we interviewed more families living through these circumstances.  

Your interviews concluded in 2020. Three years later, is there any reason to think things have improved or worsened since then when it comes to discrimination and health impact felt by children of immigrant parents?

Tellez Lieberman: While we were conducting these interviews as part of the Between the Lines study, immigration enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border and across the nation had reached a fever pitch. Now in 2023, even though there is a new president at the helm, immigration enforcement practices that separate families continue and comprehensive immigration reform remains elusive. Issues of racism and discrimination against Black and Brown communities, including Latinos, have persisted, particularly in some states. We don’t think that things have necessarily worsened in terms of the scale and scope of what we saw happening under the previous president’s administration, but we are still far from dismantling immigration policies and practices that harm U.S. children in immigrant families.

Considering your findings, how can immigration reform, intervention programs and other services be improved to prevent or mitigate damage to child health?

Tellez Lieberman: The most important measure would be to reform immigration policies and enforcement practices in the U.S. so that they are family-friendly, anti-racist, and trauma-informed. Policies should protect the integrity of families of U.S. children with immigrant parents. They should prioritize the long-term health and well-being of these children above political agendas and philosophical beliefs about immigration. Some recommendations for reform include: 1) providing a legal path for regularization and citizenship for law-abiding undocumented immigrants in the U.S.; (2) re-unification of previously deported individuals with U.S. citizen children; (3) increased opportunities for historically marginalized communities (such as indigenous or ethnic minorities, political asylum-seekers, etc.) to migrate lawfully to the United States.

Martinez-Donate: While we achieve these changes in the legal landscape, immigrant families exposed to, or at risk for parental detention or deportation should have access to professional mental health services, including family counseling and therapy, to help children better cope with the trauma and constant fear these events can elicit. Mental health providers should understand this topic from the perspective of the child and within the current sociopolitical context. Schools can also support these children. We know from a study I published with colleagues last December that safe-zone policies implemented at the school district level are associated with better emotional and academic outcomes for children of immigrant parents. Additionally, resources should be allocated to help families prepare for a potential deportation. This effort should include social, legal, and mental health resources. As the lead-up and fall-out of family separation in this context is all-encompassing, as our study demonstrates, the response should be equally comprehensive.  

Any final thoughts on this study?

Tellez Lieberman: This study, and Between the Lines more broadly, would not have been possible without the dedication and hard work of our research teams in the U.S. and at the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission, our Community Advisory Board members, the local community health workers, providers, and organizations that we partnered with across the country, and the students and faculty who assisted us throughout the years of the study.  

Martinez-Donate: Additionally, we’d like to acknowledge our funder, the National Institutes for Health, for supporting this important work during a critical time in this country. Finally, we want to thank the Between the Lines families for entrusting us with their stories.

Media interested in speaking with Martinez-Donate or Lieberman should contact Greg Richter, Assistant Director of News & Media Relations at or 215-895-2614.

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