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When Parents Face Deportation, Their Children's Mental Health Suffers


For many families, there is a lot riding on a case that's now before the Supreme Court. It's about President Obama's executive order known as Deferred Actions for Parents of Americans. It could shield millions of people who are here illegally from deportation. There's growing research that shows when a parent is arrested by immigration authorities, it can have a big impact on a child's mental and physical health. Adrian Florido of Code Switch brings us one family's story.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The Diaz family lives in a squat, pink apartment building in Miami's Little Havana. Early one morning three years ago, Dad, Jose, was arrested just as he left for work. When Mom, Marcela, and her 8-year-old son, Bryan, went outside, they saw Jose's truck idling in the driveway, its door open. A white van with tinted windows was blocking its exit, and they realized Jose was inside. As the school bus pulled up, Bryan started crying.

BRYAN DIAZ: 'Cause I didn't know what was happening. I thought, you know, I thought he murdered somebody, do something, I don't know.

FLORIDO: And then the bus came and you had to get on the bus.

BRYAN: Yes. It felt really weird 'cause none of my friends really seen me cry in person.

FLORIDO: Bryan's parents had never explained they were in the country illegally. So at first, Bryan assumed his dad had committed a horrible crime. Marcela explained to him this wasn't the case but she says he still became an emotional wreck.

MARCELA DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "He cried and cried," she says. "He just shut himself up." Bryan also developed stress-related stomach problems and would vomit randomly. Bryan is not alone. Between 2012 and 2014, the U.S. government deported 200,000 adults who had children born in the U.S. And experts say many of these kids, and even those whose parents are only at risk of deportation, suffer physical and mental health problems as a result. Some have shown signs of PTSD.

WENDY CERVANTES: Inability to sleep at night, a lot of anxiousness, behavioral problems, low academic performance.

FLORIDO: This is Wendy Cervantes of the children's advocacy group First Focus.

CERVANTES: But it's also - obviously the mental health impact becomes even greater when a child actually witnesses a parent being arrested or loses a parent as a result of deportation or detention.

FLORIDO: Lili Farhang directs Oakland-based Human Impact Partners, which has tried to quantify the effects. Her group estimates that in 2012, for example, up to 100,000 kids had shown signs of withdrawal after a parent's detention or deportation. She says this is only a fraction of the children at risk.

LILI FARHANG: You have 4 million kids, you know, who can face having a parent be deported and you have to wonder what are the long-term effects for this population of children?

FLORIDO: Farhang says that despite being U.S. citizens, many of these kids don't access health care because their remaining parent or guardian may also fear being deported. In this way, Bryan was lucky. Though Marcela is herself undocumented, she took him to a doctor and a psychologist.

M. DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She shows me his diagnosis - anxiety and impaired social functioning due to the trauma of his father's detention, gastritis. While she got help for Bryan, Marcela was also working hard to prevent her husband's deportation. Bryan remembers his mom coming home one day and breaking down.

BRYAN: Then I just took - went to her room to talk to her and I said, oh, Mom, I'm going to stop crying and I'm going to help you with all this.

FLORIDO: Despite his anxiety, Bryan joined his mother's efforts. On the day before Jose was scheduled to be deported, they got a call. A congresswoman had intervened and Jose was being released.

JOSE DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "They all came to meet me at the gate," Jose says. But after the initial celebration, it became clear that his son was not the same boy he'd been before.

J. DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "That's the cruelest thing for us," he says. "When parents are deported, it's the kids who suffer." Today, three years after his dad's arrest, Bryan is still on meds for his stomach. Emotionally, he is doing better.

BRYAN: Well, like, only 98 percent better.

FLORIDO: What are those 2 percent that you're still kind of feeling not so good about?

BRYAN: Well, I'm still scared that - about my mom.

FLORIDO: Bryan says he hopes the Supreme Court upholds the president's DAPA program because it would protect his parents. And he says that would help him get fully better. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Miami.

MCEVERS: This story was supported by a community health reporting grant from the International Center for Journalists. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.