USF study finds DACA immigrants struggle with poor mental health

In 2016, University of South Florida researcher Elizabeth Aranda was completing a project on young immigrant adults. She had conducted interviews with scores of people, all willing to share their stories of life without permanent legal status.

But the morning former President Donald Trump was elected, something changed. One of Aranda’s interviewees failed to show up for an appointment. In fact, she never heard from him again. It kept happening.

During his campaign, Trump made a crackdown on immigration a key issue. He promised harsher penalties for people living in the United States without permanent legal status and dashed the hope many had of a path to citizenship.

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Its takeover has sparked new waves of fear and uncertainty for immigrants — especially those who arrived in the United States as children and received protections under former President Barack Obama that Trump has sought to rescind.

“It got me thinking, ‘How are people with precarious legal status going to negotiate in the next four years?'” Aranda recalled.

That’s the question at the center of a research paper published this summer by Aranda and her collaborators Elizabeth Vaquera, Heide Castaneda and Gircea Martinez Rosas.

Elizabeth Aranda is a professor of sociology at the University of South Florida. [ USF ]

Over several years, Aranda and her team interviewed more than 50 young adults from the Tampa Bay area who were living under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as it was under threat of elimination. The goal was to understand the severity of the uncertainty surrounding their immigration status.

Most of the participants reported that their mental health deteriorated as a result of stress due to threats to the program and their status. About 20% reported suicidal thoughts. Half of the sample said they had engaged in some form of self-harm.

The The DACA program, which was introduced by the Obama administration in 2012, provides protection to immigrants who arrived in the United States as children – many of whom have known no other home.

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Under the law, these “Dreamers” are protected from deportation, given work permits and can pursue higher education. But the program has failed to provide a path to permanent residency and has faced frequent threats of elimination over the past nearly decade.

The result is a life of limbo for more than 24,000 DACA recipients in Florida — and hundreds of thousands nationally — who are forced to live from court to court in constant fear of having their protections revoked. They are people like Hillsborough County resident Nancy Palacios, who immigrated from Mexico when she was 6 years old.

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Palacios, 33, participated in Aranda’s study.

The Palaces of Nancy.
The Palaces of Nancy. [ LAUREN PEACE | Times ]

Like many interviewees, Palacios said threats to the program and fear of deportation changed the way she lived and the choices she made.

Making money became her top priority. She worried about saving in case she was forced to leave the U.S., a threat that changed the way she thought about her future.

She stopped going to college so she could work. She didn’t buy a home when they were still in her price range, before the record high in housing costs. She was worried about losing her health care.

“You live in fear every day,” Palacios said. “It affects the whole family. It hurts.”

Her experience is representative of the larger themes realized in Aranda’s research.

The study found that uncertainty about the future affects work and educational outcomes for DACA recipients. It also affected the sense of belonging.

Aranda found that participants talked about the potential end of DACA in a way that mirrored the way people living with a terminal illness talk about the looming end of life.

“It’s a form of trauma,” Aranda said. “Now imagine if we actually lost DACA. This could lead to a public mental health crisis among this population.

But another finding from Aranda’s research is increased civic engagement among recipients.

Connected: Court ruling inspires local ‘Dreamers’ to redouble advocacy for immigrants

That’s because the need to advocate for greater protections is more important than ever, said Sirenio Cervantes, another participant.

Like Palacios, Cervantes also emigrated from Mexico as a child. Cervantes, 29, was a teenager working on a farm in Michigan when the deferred action program first went into effect. He is now a graduate student studying public health in Florida.

Cervantes Cervantes
Cervantes Cervantes [ Courtesy of Cirenio Cervantes ]

He was not involved in advocacy at the time, he said. But as attacks on the program became more serious after 2016, Cervantes said, he realized the need to speak out. There was no way he could remain silent.

“Uncertainty continues to haunt us every day,” Cervantes said. “I hope we will continue to highlight the stories that are often left in the shadows and advocate for permanent residency.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about the study and for more information about DACA, visit:

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