Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Anxious and Alert: Recognizing Symptoms in Children of Undocumented Parents



At the beginning of 2016, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) conducted immigration raids, primarily in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina. According to DHS, they rounded up 121 individuals, mostly Central American women and children who were slated for deportation. Given the epidemic levels of gang violence and human rights abuses these families sought to escape, many argue the deportations are inhumane. The raids and deportations also have instilled fear and anxiety in immigrant communities nationwide and these rippling effects are being observed in schools throughout the country. Considering the sheer size of the population of U.S. children with at least one undocumented parent, and the legitimate fear of being separated from one’s parents, many U.S. students are understandably anxious and on alert, fearful and chronically stressed.

By The Numbers

Regardless of their own immigration status, children who have an undocumented parent often feel fear and stress about immigration. In a recent report, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) released statistics on the populations of U.S. children with undocumented parents.  This data demonstrates the large number of children impacted by what is as much an education issue as an immigration issue.  

·        The population of U.S. children under age 18 with one undocumented parent represents 30 percent of all children of immigrants and 7 percent of all U.S. children (4.1 million).
·        Compared to all children of immigrants and all U.S. children, both U.S. citizen and non-citizen children with an undocumented parent are more likely to experience poverty, lower levels of preschool enrollment, linguistic isolation, limited English proficiency, and reduced chances of socioeconomic mobility.

The socioeconomic and educational disadvantage experienced by children of undocumented immigrants today will have an impact in these children’s lives for years to come – and on all of us, living and working besides and with them.

While most children with undocumented parents are U.S. citizens (79 percent), an estimated 959,000 (19 percent) are undocumented themselves and 113,000 are legally present including lawful permanent residents (LPRs) and those with temporary visas. In The Atlantic article “How Fears of Deportation Harms Kids’ Education,” Melinda D. Andersen addresses how the fear of deportation (that of their own deportation or that of a parent) causes mental, physical and emotional toils on children. The practical manifestations of such legitimatized fears may be most apparent to educators and administrators in the amount of missed schools days.

But there are other signs as well.

By The Symptoms

Between the morning bell and when the last paper is graded for the day, there is a lot that teachers must manage. What follows is a list of symptoms to be aware of. This list was prepared by María Elisa Cuadra-Fernández, a licensed social worker and Executive Director/CEO of COPAY Inc., a bilingual professional youth prevention and leadership development agency. With her permission, we are publishing an excerpt of her article, “Anxiety and PTSD in Latino Children of Immigrants: The ICE Raid Connection to the Development of These Disorders.” To read the full piece, which we recommend, please click here and share broadly.

The real fear and stress over potential family loss may manifest itself in these symptoms of Anxiety Disorders:

  • Constant thoughts and intense fears about the safety of parents and caregivers. 
  • Refusing to go to school. 
  • Stomach aches and other physical complaints.
  • Being overly clingy. 
  • Panic or tantrums related to having to separate from parents. 
  • Trouble sleeping or nightmares. 
  • Fear about a specific thing. 
  • Fear that causes significant distress.
  • Fear of meeting or having to talk to particular people. 
  • Avoidance.
  • Having few friends. 
  • Worries over things before they actually happen. 
  • Constant worries or concerns about family. 
  • Repetitive or unwanted thoughts (obsessions) or actions (compulsions). 
  • Fears of embarrassment. 
  • Low self-esteem or lack of self-confidence.


Latino children, like all children, need the freedom and safety to just be children and grow. The energy the child must invest in managing and coping with their fear and stress is energy that is lost to them relative to their cognitive, emotional, psychological, social and academic development. If you identify a child suffering from these symptoms, we encourage you to seek assistance as appropriate from licensed counselors. 

Additional Resources:


  • Welcoming Immigrant Students Into the Classroom (American Immigration Council) - The 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe determined that all students, regardless of their immigration status, are entitled to access K-12 public education. This article provides a brief list of Do’s and Don’ts for building relationships with immigrant students and families.
  • What Undocumented Students Bring to the Classroom (The Atlantic) – This article written by San Francisco Bay Area teacher and writer, Andrew Simmons, demonstrates the benefits of having undocumented students in the classroom and how they have enhanced the learning experiences for all the country's children.


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