Shoes symbolizing deported fathers are displayed during a demonstration in New York City in June.John Moore/Getty Images
Some nights, Alejandra Muñoz wakes with the distinct feeling that she's not an adult in Long Beach, Calif. She's a teen in Oakland, listening to her brother bang around the kitchen. It usually takes her a minute to remember that Donovan is not around anymore.
He hasn't died. He has been deported.
"Sometimes it's worse than a death; I've had family members pass away, and you heal," said Muñoz, whose birth father died when she was 2. With deportation, she said, "nothing I do will bring my family back together. It's like an incomplete puzzle, and I can't find the last few pieces."
Both Muñoz's brother and her stepfather were deported within a two-year period — and her situation is far from unique. Approximately 4.5 million American citizens have been born to undocumented parents, and about 660,000 have lost a parent to deportation since 1998. With President Barack Obama presiding over more deportations than any other president — nearly 2 million to date — such separations have left a generation of children with a heavy emotional burden.
Many, like Muñoz, are the only citizens in their families. About 5,100 citizens are in foster care after the deportation of a parent; others are undocumented themselves and can't visit their parents. Research shows that deportations can lead to a host of trauma-related reactions in children, including generalized anxiety, recurrent nightmares, depression, panic attacks and flashbacks. This doesn't include other stressors, such as the financial strain of losing a breadwinner, a dearth of mental health services and the anxiety that already pervades many immigrant communities.
"They can seem fine," said Linda Alarcon, a marriage and family therapist at La Maestra Community Health Center in San Diego, who has treated mothers and children who have had a spouse or parent deported, as well as children in foster care with a deported parent. "But all that emotional turmoil is still there, and they'll channel it in different ways, some of them in healthy ways, some of them not so healthy."
A 2007 study in the Journal of the National Medical Association found that just the fear of deportation — not deportation itself — was associated with worse health outcomes and greater emotional distress for children of immigrants. When deportation is a reality and not just a threat, a review in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences found, deportation predicts poor health outcomes in children. And a June report linked a parent's deportation to poorer physical and mental health, along with worse school performance and shorter life spans.
But those impacts vary with the age of the child, Alarcon said. In children younger than 12, a reversion to bed-wetting, trouble concentrating in school, numbing through daydreaming, refusal to go outside and clinging to the remaining parent are all common. Older children tend to become angry and withdrawn.
"When you're older, you're able to process it — but even for adults, the experience is hard to explain," Alarcon said. "Imagine what it's like for younger kids. Cognitively, they don't know how to process that. A lot of times they will shut down. They will say, 'No, I will not go outside anymore to play.' Because the world is scary now."
In August 2011, Vivian de Leon was 17 and home in Lynn, Mass., with her sister and little brother when her mother Ileana returned home with red, puffy eyes. De Leon's father, Humberto, had been pulled over for expired tags on his car and was arrested for being undocumented. Ileana had just come from immigration court, where she learned that Humberto had been detained at the border when he'd crossed in 1994, and had an order of deportation. It was the last time the family saw him.
"I never saw my mom cry the way she cried that time," said de Leon, now 19.
Vivian de Leon, second from left, with (left to right) her father Humberto, brother Gerson, sister Jennifer and mother Ileana Teo, celebrating her brother's second birthday.Family photo
Wanting to maintain her composure for her mother and siblings, de Leon didn't cry, even though this was the second time she'd lost her dad. When she was 3, her father left Guatemala to earn money in America. According to family legend, de Leon waited at the front door for him to return home from work for months before realizing he wasn't coming back. She didn't see him again until 2004, when she and her family crossed without papers.
Her father, a mechanic, had been the primary breadwinner. Now her mom, who has rheumatoid arthritis, works two jobs, along with gigs cleaning houses and selling homemade food. As the oldest, Vivian began working 20 hours a week, too, and took over supervision of her sister, then 14, and brother, 4. She was relieved when she turned 18, because it meant she could take her sister and her brother, who was born here, to the doctor.
At the same time, she was helping her mom search for an attorney to try to overturn the deportation order and gathering letters from attorneys and doctors to try to make sure her father's kidney condition and shoulder injury were addressed in detention.
And she worried. She worried about her dad's living conditions in the detention center. She worried about her sister, who withdrew and refused to do chores. She worried about what to tell her brother when he asked, "Where's Daddy?" She settled on a lie — that he was working and coming back soon — but never felt right about it, despite knowing she couldn't explain deportation to a 4-year-old.
And she worried about her mother, both her health and her deportation. She began having nightmares in which she tucked her mother away while U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) searched the house.
"I'm still scared to death it could happen to my mom at any moment," she said.
She let go of her dream of being a doctor and started to make plans in case her mother was picked up. She couldn't concentrate at school. Her A and B average slipped.
And she became angry — so angry sometimes that she didn't know how to contain it. Church helped, as did work with the Student Immigrant Movement, where she helps other families fighting deportation.
Even that's a mixed blessing, though. It channels her anger and provides her resources in case her mom is detained, but it also takes her back to that day in 2011.
"I know I have to be strong for that family (I'm helping)," she said. "But at the same time, it's hard for me, because I get flashbacks of what I went through. I get these moments where, like, I'm seeing and remembering the whole thing when my mom told me Dad was detained by immigration. And then I remember the horrible conditions in the detention center, and not being able to go see him (because I'm not a legal resident)."