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Undocumented Anguish: Mental Health Issues Plague Immigrant Youth

Fliers commemorate undocumented youth who committed suicide.
Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

Tears ran down Reyna Wences’ face as she described her despair. 

She talked about her efforts to be a good student and her desire to make her parents proud, to be worthy of all they sacrificed for her to get a good education, culminating with her 2009 graduation from a selective college-prep high school in Chicago. 

But the American Dream couldn’t be. Wences spent most of her life hiding her status as an illegal immigrant who arrived from Mexico via a “coyote” guide at the age of 9. When teachers encouraged her to take a class trip to Canada to broaden her knowledge of French and to apply to college, she made excuses. Her parents were over-protective. But in reality, Wences wouldn’t be able to get back into the country and couldn’t fill out most college applications without a Social Security number. 

Although she eventually attended the University of Illinois Chicago, which accepts undocumented students, and obtained some scholarships to help pay for it, Wences felt her future was out of reach and ultimately pointless. 

Fear of drawing attention to her family’s immigration status even kept Wences from reporting sexual abuse. “When you grow up knowing that the police are coming to your house and that immigration could come take your whole family, you stay silent,” she says. What did an education matter? She couldn’t even get a job to support herself without an education. What did anything matter? 

“On graduation day, I just couldn’t take it,” she says. “I started thinking a funeral would be cheaper than school. I tried to commit suicide.” 

Wences told her story during a recent conference on the mental health of undocumented youth at Chicago’s Adler School of Professional Psychology. Borrowing a line from the poet Langston Hughes, the conference was called “A Dream Deferred.” It aimed to raise awareness about mental health issues faced by a whole generation of undocumented youth who have grown up in America but are finding as they come of age that the place they consider home really isn’t. They call themselves “dreamers.” Illinois undocumented youth like Wences are putting a face on immigration by publicly sharing their stories, making the state a home base for the national immigration rights movement. 

Because the children are undocumented, there are no solid statistics on the number of dreamers in America. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that in 2010, there were 11.2 million undocumented immigrants nationwide, with about 525,000 in Illinois. Of those national figures, experts estimate about 2.15 million are young people who have attended American schools and are in pursuit of higher education, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). The highest population of illegal immigrants in Illinois is in Chicago and then the collar counties, but they live throughout the state, including Arcola, Beardstown, Bloomington, Carbondale, Champaign, Compton, Rockford and Springfield. “Undocumented children are the invisible victims of immigration restriction,” says Roberto Gonzales, a University of Chicago professor whose work focuses on undocumented youth. “This is probably one of the biggest civil rights issues of our day.” 

Undocumented young people go from having the right to a public school education, as supported by a 1982 Supreme Court decision, to few rights because they can’t drive, vote, work or apply for some higher education aid or scholarships. As a result, many undocumented youth have feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, helplessness, fear of being found out and a loss of motivation, Gonzales says. Stories like Wences’ are common among her peers, just not often told openly until recently as she and other young people have joined forces to form the Chicago-based Immigrant Youth Justice League. Members have revealed their names and immigration status and have participated in demonstrations across the country. They have rallied in the memory of an undocumented Chicago youth who committed suicide, they have participated in a sit-in at Sen. John McCain’s office in Tucson, Ariz., and most recently, they blocked a street near Alabama’s state Capitol to protest that state’s strict new immigration laws. Illinois youth have played a key role in organizing and coordinating the movement at a national level, says Amalia Pallares, associate professor of political science and Latin?American studies at the University of Illinois Chicago. “There’s a demographic reality that the number of undocumented youth eligible for college is increasing. The issue has become more pressing.” 

Members of the Immigrant Youth Justice League risk attention, arrest and deportation. “It is incredibly brave,” says Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “It’s like a dare when it comes down to it. You are announcing yourself and saying you are undocumented, understanding the consequences of being apprehended by and deported by the country you have known just about your entire life. It takes an enormous amount of courage to come out.” 

At the same time, the students’ actions aren’t all that surprising, says Nilda Flores-Gonzalez, a professor of sociology and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois Chicago who has been tracking youth activism in the immigration movement. She knows several members of the Immigrant Youth Justice League who also attend UIC. “They’ve been raised as every other child in America. They feel American. They pledge allegiance to America in school and grow up with American values,” Flores-Gonzalez says. “They feel they have that right to speak up and to represent themselves and to demand what they think is fair.” 

Activism gives the dreamers an identity apart from the “stigmatized label of illegal immigrant,” says Hinda Seif, assistant professor in the departments of sociology/anthropology and women/gender studies at the University of Illinois Springfield. “That is a positive identity associating them with the American Dream and the political struggle for their rights. These groups have been places where dreamers can prove to themselves and others that although they are excluded from being formal U.S. citizens, they are acting like model citizens,” says Seif, also a research associate with the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at University of California, San Diego. She has been studying immigrant youth groups in Illinois and nationwide through websites. Seif has found that organizations, which largely formed as a result of lobbying for the Dream Act, have helped young people break their isolation, socialize and learn practical ways of coping with being undocumented. For example, they share what to do when approached by the police or how to pursue college. Also, the organizations give young people a sense of purpose along with skills in social media, technology and public affairs. 

The 2009 deportation proceedings of a UIC student, Rigo Padilla, who was ordered to leave the United States after a drinking-and-driving misdemeanor, rallied the youth movement in Illinois. Padilla’s deportation was stayed by the Obama administration, in part because of an Internet campaign by fellow students, some of whom also were undocumented. After working to help Padilla, students formed the Immigrant Youth Justice League in the fall of 2009, feeling there was a need to organize. “The United States is my country. I’m fighting to make it better,” says Tania Unzueta, a fellow undocumented classmate of Padilla’s and one of the Immigrant Youth Justice League founders. “Law, policy and legislation are very connected to our mental health and our lives — the way we think about ourselves.” 

In Seif’s view, most undocumented young people who grew up in the United States wish to stay. Many live in limbo, waiting for a change in the law to allow them to seek citizenship and work. But, others who are deported or choose to return to their home countries face a difficult road. “It’s extremely hard to leave a place where you grew up, where you have been educated and go back to a place where you were born where you may have very limited ties,” Seif says. 

Unzueta came to the United States at the age of 10 with a tourist visa. Her father had a job offer and a promise to help the family become legal citizens. The family lived in houses owned by the employers, paying them rent. Without legal status, there was fear. “The fear. There’s this feeling we never get past,” Unzueta says. “Your hand is sweating whenever a police officer comes near you. You are embarrassed about showing an ID that isn’t like a regular ID. You don’t know if you have a future. In general, it’s a cloud of vulnerability.” 

In coming together, young people found they suffered shared mental health problems from the stress of being undocumented. The Adler conference gave academics and youth an opportunity to “say this isn’t being talked about and ought to be,” says Stephen Smith, director of organizing for the ICIRR. “The goal is to scream and yell so that everyone knows this is real. The hope is that we will figure out ways to bolster support for undocumented youth in a mental health way.” 

While critics of immigration reform are sympathetic to the problems faced by undocumented youth, they say taxpayers shouldn’t be held responsible. “In the end, the responsibility lies with the federal government that hasn’t done a good job of enforcing immigration laws, as well as the people who made a decision to enter this country in violation of our laws and put their loved ones in harm’s way,” says Dave Gorak of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration. “I don’t know what the answer is. It’s a very sad situation. There’s no doubt about it.” He says amnesty and the promise of a public education for undocumented children encourages more illegal immigration. “It’s hanging out a welcome sign,” he says. 

The immigrant-friendly political climate in Illinois has much to do with the growth of groups such as the Immigrant Youth Justice League, says Flores-Gonzalez. With sympathizers such as U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez and other lawmakers, the youth immigration rights movement has representation and a voice in Washington, D.C. “That is very particular to Illinois and is very different from other states,” Flores-Gonzalez says. “Illinois has been a friendly state in terms of fostering and providing them with political development.” For instance, Durbin and Gutierrez have been important supporters of the failed federal DREAM Act that would have allowed some undocumented students who grew up in the United States a way to gain citizenship if they went to college or served in the military. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky introduced legislation to grant Padilla permanent legal status. 

Lawmakers at the state level also are friendly to the undocumented. Illinois is one of about a dozen states that offer in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants. This year, the Illinois DREAM Act was signed into law, creating a governor-appointed commission to oversee a privately funded scholarship program for legal and illegal immigrants. The program should be up and running in the next year, says Tsao of the ICIRR, who helped write the act. “These are students who are getting into these colleges because they are darn good students,” he says. “That has been a fairly significant step in enabling young people to pursue their education.” Also, the law allows immigrant families to participate in Illinois college savings programs and requires training for high school counselors on how to best advise undocumented students on ways to pay for higher learning. 

While those measures take care of students’ needs, the bigger issue is what to do with immigrants who are here. The first step is understanding who they are and why they are here, says Sonali Gupta, core faculty member in the clinical psychology department at Adler. Some may have come for economic reasons, to make a better life. But many also come as asylum seekers who do not have benefits or authorization to work when entering the United States or as refugees who are granted permission to immigrate and do have access to benefits, including health care and being able to work. They might be fleeing persecution or civil unrest or they might be victims of torture, human labor or sex trafficking. Gupta says there is a human rights perspective, particularly when dealing with children who are more vulnerable. “It’s a very nuanced issue,” she says. Gupta thinks immigrants should have access to college and employment, allowing them to contribute. “They are remaining in our country and are dependent on our system one way or another.” 

Alaa Mukahhal rattles off the date “September 18, 2012. You don’t forget court dates like that.” She’s seeking asylum, hoping it will put her in line to become legal, to be able to work and use her degree in architecture from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. At the age of 6 in 1993, Mukahhal moved to Chicago from Jordan. Her family first fled Kuwait before Iraq invaded that country. Because her family is Palestinian, there is a risk that authorities in Jordan could confiscate her passport, leaving her without a country, Mukahhal says. 

“My parents were looking to make a better life for me and my brother,” she says. Her father obtained a green card and worked as a truck driver, paying taxes, supporting his family that grew to include children born in America and paying for Mukahhal’s schooling. She was stunned to find her status would keep her from getting a job. “I thought for sure things would work out. I mean this is America. There has to be a way to fix things,” she says. “I’m stuck since I graduated. It’s like being on the highway and being the one car stuck in the middle and all the cars are moving around you.” She feels defeated that she’s not able to take advantage of the opportunities her parents worked hard to give her. “I feel like they’ve worked too hard for me not to be able to move forward with my life,” Mukahhal says. “We’re not looking for handouts. What we’re looking for is a chance.” 

Until she and other immigrants have that chance, Mukahhal and other members of the Immigrant Youth Justice League say they will continue to speak out. The activism keeps their spirits up, keeps them going. 

“Getting up and continuing to fight until things get better is empowering,” Mukahhal says. “That has kept me and many others like me from going under.” 

Kristy Kennedy is a Naperville-based free-lance writer.

Illinois Issues, January 2012

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