Immigration: Terror as the norm for immigrants in today’s world

By Janine D’Anniballe, Ph.D.

Immigration, the act of coming to live permanently in a foreign country, can be a difficult experience even in the best of circumstances. Regardless of circumstances of origin and socioeconomics, people who immigrate experience a loss of culture, loss of language or dialect, and must navigate the feeling of not belonging, if not being openly overtly targeted for their identity.

Many people immigrate to escape traumatic circumstances in their home country, whether that be domestic violence, gang violence, poverty, identity-based discrimination, or armed conflict. During the journey to a new country, many people, especially those without financial resources, face additional trauma through exploitation, violence, and dangerous conditions of travel, whether that be a coyote exploiting a family for more money than the original agreement, using sexual violence as a means of extracting payment when a family runs out of money, or braving dangerous lands or waters in subpar methods of transportation. Tragically, policies and practices in the United States, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and family separation policies, amplify existing traumatic stress in people’s brains and bodies once families finally cross the border

ICE raids

When entire immigrant communities must live in fear of ICE raids, trust in others can become compromised. Even systems designed to offer support, like mental health organizations, social service agencies, and faith-based groups can be perceived as unsafe.  Living in a constant state of fear and mistrust can lead to anxiety and depression. A common and logical response to the threat of raids and deportation is to isolate, which tends to exacerbate mental health issues.

Family separation

One of the most potent stressors any child can experience is separation from a parent, particularly when that separation is prolonged or occurs under terrifying or chaotic circumstances.  Interrupted attachment can lay the groundwork for a child’s difficulty functioning effectively in subsequent relationships.  Traumatic separation can alter a child’s ability to trust others and feel safe in the world.

When a family member goes away on a trip and smiles and waves goodbye, the child may experience anxiety due to the separation.  However, when a child witnesses terror on the face of a parental figure, the impact of trauma compounds. Developmentally, children’s brains cannot separate what is happening to their parents from what is happening to them; seeing terror on a parent’s face may cause children to feel as if they themselves are in imminent danger. It is not overstating to describe forced family separation as a form of child abuse. The impact of such a traumatic separation on a developing brain can have a profound, lifelong impact.

Individual impact

Traumatic events can have short and long-term impact on victims. Common symptoms may include nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts about the event, feelings of self-blame, and negative feelings such as anger, rage, anxiety, sadness, and panic. Negative behaviors are also common after experiences of unprocessed, untreated trauma including aggression, acting out, truancy, self-harm, and substance misuse. Factors that may support resiliency and buffer negative impact, such as family and community support, may be less accessible due to the circumstances of immigrating.

Community responsibility

Even for those who are not experiencing the threat or reality of deportation or traumatic separation, everyone is affected by this scale and magnitude of cultural trauma. When some families have to isolate to stay safe, neighbors lose out on integrated communities and a wealth of diverse ideas and contributions are notably absent from the public sphere. First generation children may find that assimilation and success in the U.S. requires them to distance from their cultural and national roots, a consequence of discrimination and internalized oppression. The secondary trauma experienced by extended family and friends of those who are being targeted by inhumane immigration policies ripples through our communities and negatively impacts our collective safety and wellbeing.

Our communities are impacted by trauma-inducing immigration policies, and we also have a responsibility to respond. Organizing and advocating for trauma-informed immigration policy and practice is critical. Simultaneously, there are steps that community organizations and service providers can immediately take to support targeted communities:

  • Outreach into immigrant communities to build relationships and create safe bridges to services
  • Hire staff reflective of the community to improve culturally responsive services and leadership within organizations
  • Provide information and paperwork in clients’ native languages
  • Offer mental health and advocacy services in locations that are not connected to county offices (law enforcement/social services) that could be perceived as unsafe
  • Use a strengths-based culturally responsive approach to help immigrant people cultivate their resiliency

Are you, or a loved one, experiencing a mental health crisis? For immediate help, please contact the 24/7 Statewide Crisis Line: 1 (844) 493-TALK. If you, or a loved one, would like to learn more about trauma-informed care, please call Moving Beyond Trauma at (303) 443-8500.