Deportations creating a generation scarred by parental loss

Despite being US citizens, children of deported parents face numerous practical, emotional consequences

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."

The oldest daughter

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)."


The mother and brother of Denisse, 24, and her sister Nadia, 25, who asked that their last names not be used, left the U.S. by choice, but that didn't make the loss any easier. Their mother chose to return to Mexico after about two years and eventually moved to Canada legally to work as a nurse. Their brother made the move to Canada in 2007 and now works for a Toronto software company. But the bouts of insomnia, heightened anxiety and depression are still present for Nadia, who struggles to cope with simple things, such as when a friend moves away.

Nadia, left, more than 20 years ago with her older brother, mother, and younger sister in her mother's arms.
Family photo

"I hate to say goodbye to people," she said. "I always feel like I'm losing someone."

Her brother's and mother's decisions to leave came after a failed attempt at citizenship that ended, in 2006, with the sisters and their mother being deported.

The family had followed the directions of an immigration attorney to apply for asylum as a way to adjust their status. They didn't know it was a scam known as the asylum trap. The asylum case was denied, and the family was put in deportation proceedings.

The girls woke one day to find ICE agents at their Hayward, Calif., home and ended the day in Tijuana. It was five days before Christmas.

The sisters said it's hard to separate the trauma of losing their mother and older brother from the trauma of the deportation. For girls who had lived in the U.S. since they were infants, Mexico City's poverty, homeless children and wild dogs were a shock. Denisse could barely bring herself to leave her grandmother's apartment, where they were staying.

When they returned to the Bay Area a few months later, Denisse grew suspicious of everything. They didn't know who had turned them in to ICE, and they suspected extended family. She began scanning the street for cars with government plates and for white vans, the kind of vehicle that took them away in 2006.

And then there were the nightmares.

"Sometimes I'd dream that my mom was being killed, because of the violence in Mexico," said Denisse, who hasn't seen her mother and brother in two years. "Other times, I'd dream that they were looking for us again."

The citizen

Muñoz is quick to tell you she feels undocumented, even though she was born in the U.S.

"I felt just as afraid as the rest of my family if a cop car was behind us," she said. "I'd get afraid that they'd pull us over, and what would happen."

Muñoz started driving early, at 15, because as the only citizen in the family, she was also the only one with a driver’s license. She was her family’s translator and advocate.

When police detained her brother for tagging in 2009, it was 19-year-old Muñoz who showed up in court for his hearings. She brought his single bag of clothes to him when the deportation order was complete.

When her stepfather was detained in 2011, Muñoz did it all over again. She appeared in court for the family, through the cancellation of the deportation order, the subsequent appeal and his eventual deportation. When the lawyer was late, Muñoz represented her stepfather.

Worry gripped her — not for herself, but for her mother and her younger brother still living at home. Her mother, she said, went into a deep depression. She continued to work but lost her hair. Muñoz also became depressed, but didn't stop school or work. In fact, it was just the opposite. She began interning with immigrant rights groups and studying for the LSAT. She took a creative writing course. Anything to keep her from remembering.

"I'm still prone to saying, 'I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine,'" she said. "But I really wasn't. I'd go to sleep and cry so much."

As a U.S. citizen, Muñoz can visit her family in Mexico, but the trips are bittersweet. She can't get her mind around the directions her life has taken nor that of her brother — she to college, a career, gourmet dinners and an apartment a block from the beach, and he to drugs, gangs, deportation and frijoles for dinner. She knows her parents moved here so she could have the life she has, but why should she have it and not her brother? Family reunification seems to her the only, impossible answer.

"If my family were together, I wouldn't be confused," she said. "I wouldn't feel lonely or angry or sad. It would go so far to alleviate my worry about my brother — how's he doing in Mexico? Or my stepfather — how's he doing? Or my mother or younger brother. It haunts you."

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