Lessons: Reporting on trauma faced by children of deported parents

Published on
May 20, 2014

Each time I report on a topic related to immigration, I feel as though I run the risk of getting caught in a riptide. It is such a polarizing and delicate topic that most people are not quite comfortable talking about it. And when we do, more often than not, it leaves no one satisfied.

But the numbers tell a troubling story.

There are about 11 million undocumented immigrants who face great risks in pursuit of a better life. Every day more than 1,000 immigrants, most of them parents of children who are U.S. citizens by birth, are deported from the United States. Reported data also show that about two-thirds of deported cases involved immigrants with minor or non-existent criminal records. Since 2000, the total number of people that we have deported is higher than the population of New Zealand.

Deportation is often traumatic for the children left behind, and that trauma can make them more vulnerable to physical diseases and psychological disorders later in life. According to psychiatrists and mental health experts, adversities faced in childhood — including forced parental separation and ensuing economic hardship — can also lead to premature death. As pioneering childhood adversity researcher Dr. Vincent Felitti has written, childhood adversities “are not lost, but like a child’s footprint in a wet cement, they are often lifelong.”

The deportation of parents puts hundreds of thousands of children at risk for high levels of trauma, which can later lead to substance abuse, marital disruptions, low educational attainment, and unemployment. Over time, the impacts aren’t just personal but societal.

In the broader American communities, there is still little awareness of the health effects of deportation. The immigration conversation is largely focused on political attitudes towards undocumented immigrants.

Finding sources is a challenge

In the spring of 2013, when I first started to do my reporting, I visited an immigrant center in New York City. When I arrived at the center on the eastside of Manhattan, there were about five people there seeking legal services. Each of them had a father, a mother or a spouse who was either deported or awaiting deportation.

As an immigrant myself, it seemed that everyone was comfortable with me. A couple of them aired strong opinions on the current U.S. immigration policy, denouncing it as “a broken system that separates families.” We had a tacit understanding on the immigrant experience, and it made it easier for them to understand why I was doing the series.

Yet as a journalist, I was still an “outsider.” No one was willing to share his or her stories with me. They were open to discussing their experiences only among themselves. I was told that everything was off the record and warned that nothing we discussed that day could leave the center.

One young woman agreed to talk on condition that she would be quoted as an anonymous source, and that the names of everyone involved in her story would be changed. It was tempting to agree, but I figured early on that the identity of my sources would help validate their account. I also knew that readers want to get to know a story’s subjects, as well as the details of their experience of forced parental separation. It would have been almost impossible to do that anonymously.

Meanwhile, I began to track down several experts who have done relevant mental health studies. I made trips to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and NYU’s School of Medicine. I interviewed faculty members and delved into their libraries.

But the lack of data on the adverse effects of parental deportation on children was striking. I found numerous studies on the psychological and emotional effects of separation such as divorce or death — but nothing that was specifically focused on deportation.

Gifford Smith, now is the board president of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), said that his group has conducted numerous studies on causal relationships between trauma and the mental health effects on individuals of different age brackets and backgrounds. But research pertaining specifically to children left behind by deported parents was limited, he said.

Putting the stories in a larger context

With the volume of information I gathered over several months, there were moments when I found myself overwhelmed. “How would I make sense of all that I have reported?” I remember asking myself.

Bill Heisel, a contributing editor at Reporting on Health who worked with me throughout the series, and my weekly editors at New America Media helped me focus on what was worth highlighting and what possible biases I should guard against.

After several discussions, we decided it made sense to first establish the connection between parental deportation and mental health problems through personal stories, including those of Jessica Papa, 31, and Myrna Orozco, 23. They were diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after they were forcibly separated from their parents.

I was introduced to Papa through Families for Freedom, a New York City-based organization for individuals with family members that were detained or deported. I found Orozco through my own research after contacting United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the country, where he worked as a Washington, D.C.-based organizer.

For the second story, Bill suggested “a tough-minded look at whether the mental health field is addressing these issues.” Has ICE adopted policies to avoid these trauma-inducing separations? How often is mental health care provided to kids? Are there any model programs to help families that have evidence-based results?

Through the story of 17-year-old Fanta Fofana, whose Senegalese father was arrested in front of her and her younger siblings, we decided to look at the lifelong health consequences suffered by children who witness their parents being taken away.

It took me almost 11 months of reporting, writing, editing and revising to finish the two-part series. Both of the stories were translated into Spanish and Chinese.

If one yardstick of success is the number of people who read the series, then it’s worth pointing out that the stories appeared in more than 50 news outlets, blogs, and independent websites.

But upon reflection, I realized that the greater accomplishment of this project was that these children had enough courage to confront their fear, shame and stigma. Their stories are an important contribution to a broader national conversation.

Advocating for a comprehensive immigration reform or any form of immigration policy that would give undocumented immigrants a path to legalization was not the purpose of the series. But I believe the issues discussed in my stories transcend anti- or pro-immigration clichés. It is about creating a healthy and sound environment for our children — physically, emotionally and psychologically — and for society at large.

Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr.