Mental suffering of living in the shadows

Published on
July 3, 2013

Last week while working on a special series about Operation Streamline (federal prosecution program for immigrants detained in the Arizona desert) I interviewed Patricia Mejia, an immigration lawyer. After the formal interview we talked about her work cases and immigration reform. During our chat she said, “There should be a study about the mental health of undocumented immigrants in this country.” I just smiled and proudly told her I was selected to be a fellow for the 2013 National Health Journalism Fellowship and that particular topic was the project I would be working on. She got really excited and she told me about the mental stage many of her clients walk in to her office. Many crying, others don’t even show emotions anymore. Mejia believes that if Congress approves Immigration Reform the mental health benefits will be one the strongest.

I have worked in Arizona for over 14 years, and I have witness many families torn apart. The most vulnerable are the children; I have seen them crying, angry, and feeling abandoned. I have also told many stories of men and women who have been victims of abuse at home and the work place. Victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse by their partners are often threatened because of their immigration status and suffer major psychological consequences. Since the creation of SB1070 in Arizona, we have reported how witnesses and victims of crime are afraid of contacting authorities, the majority of immigrant families started to fear police more than seeking help. The toll in their psychological health affects them in their daily life and in many cases they are not able to find for help. I have told their stories but never looked in to the health effects this has in their lives.  

According the Center of Abuse of Southern Arizona, men and women that live in the United States with no legal authorization are 80% more likely to become a victim of physical, verbal and sexual abuse from their partners, supervisors, and other family members.

During the next few weeks I will investigate with psychologists, local organizations, local support groups, The Center of Abuse of Southern Arizona, to see how these patients who have suffered psychologically because of their immigration status can finally seek help. I want to be able to give them information and tools to reach for help and get better.

In Arizona there are over half a million undocumented immigrants, many of them are families that have lived in this country over a decade. If Immigration Reform is approved by Congress, between seven and eleven million people will receive the benefits of a legal status, and tagged along with it a healthy body and mind. 

Image by Nicola via Flickr