Melissa Garcia Velez hadn’t really considered her immigration status until she started looking at colleges. Her high school counselor told her she wouldn’t be eligible for financial aid unless she could prove she was in the country lawfully.
This was traumatic news for the now 22-year-old New Yorker.
“At that point, I thought of quitting and simply saying, I’m just going to go back to Colombia and start from scratch,” she said. “I didn’t think I was worth it. There were a lot of feelings of I don’t deserve to be here.”
Her experience is relatively common for young people growing up without legal permission to reside in the U.S. The move to a new country may begin full of hope and excitement for children, but when the reality becomes clear — no college, no job, no driver’s license — the impact can be psychologically devastating. Beyond the obstacles to success, there’s an even more immediate worry: families can be torn apart at any time by deportation.
While you can’t generalize the wildly different backgrounds of the country’s 1.5 million undocumented immigrant children, there appear to be certain psychological stages kids go through as they learn to negotiate their status, according to Lisa Fortuna, the medical director for the Brighton-Allston Mental Health Association.
The stages are important because they provide a “new language” to understand what children might be experiencing psychologically, Fortuna said.
“If young people don’t have a way to communicate things and we don’t have a way to ask about them, what young people tend to do is act out,” she said. “What is ‘act out’? That usually is risk behavior.”
Research in this field is still in its infancy, but Fortuna, who specializes in Latino mental health research, was able to walk us through the experience so we might better understand it, too.
Stage One: The Honeymoon
Life in the U.S. started on a high note for then-8-year-old Melissa. She was reuniting with her mother, who had left their family’s home in the small Colombian town of Buga three years earlier.
“I was ecstatic to see her and to be with her,” she said.
Melissa entered the U.S. on a tourist visa, accompanied by a family friend who guided her to Queens. The good feelings she experienced were part of what Fortuna would describe as the “honeymoon” period, when an undocumented young person is still unaware of the deeper implications that go along with the lack of legal status.
“We never spoke about it at home,” Melissa said. “She never brought it up and I wasn’t conscious of it.”
Stage Two: Awareness
In 2007, then-15-year old Mariana Anguiano got into the car with her brother and mother and drove 26 hours from southern Mexico to Houston.
Mariana’s mother was clear from the beginning: the family had entered the country on a tourist visa but did not have legal documentation to live and work in the U.S.
“She has always been very honest with us,” Mariana said. “She explained that when we made the decision to stay here without any sort of permit or any sort of documentation, we had to live this life now.”
Still, the reality of their situation didn’t hit until a few years later, when Mariana saw her new friends applying for driver’s licenses and getting their first jobs. The worry came to a head when she started searching for colleges and realized landing financial aid would be an uphill battle because of her immigration status.
“The entire time since we came, all I wanted to do was belong,” she said. “And you join all these organizations and you do all your work, and you go to class and make friends, but then at the end, there’s always this thing that you have no control over that makes you different.”
At some point, undocumented young people will realize their immigration status sets them apart from others, Fortuna said. Kids will start to comprehend the dangers and roadblocks set before them.
Stage Three: Coping
Mariana began to resent her mother for bringing the family to the U.S.
“For her work, she was cleaning apartments at that time,” Mariana said. “She would ask me to help her, and I would do it, but I was not happy about it. She said that we were coming to the United States to have a better life — then why were we cleaning toilets and houses? That’s not what I picture as having better opportunities.”
She would argue with her mom about work, trying to reconcile her role at home with her life at school, where other students were preparing for college.
Kids at this stage can either rebel or grow closer to their parents, according to Fortuna. “The kid is trying to figure out where they fit,” she said.
In Mariana’s case, she initially rebelled, but then realized her mother was doing what she thought was best for the family. “I didn’t understand,” she said. Now, she speaks with her mother on the phone every day.
Stage Four: Identity
Born in Brazil, Wei Lee moved to San Francisco at age 15. His family — ethnically Chinese — had been robbed several times and felt unsafe in their home outside Sao Paulo.
Although he was glad to leave Brazil and reunite with relatives in San Francisco, he was quickly thrust into a challenging world. His family entered the country using tourist visas, but when those expired, they were placed in deportation proceedings.
At the same time, he struggled to adapt socially. He was placed in ESL classes at his high school, but the students largely spoke to one another in Spanish, Cantonese and Mandarin, while Portuguese was his first language. He felt like an outsider because of the language barrier, but also because of his immigration status.
“In high school, I didn’t have a lot of friends or anything like that,” he said. “I would pretty much go home to school, school to home.”
He retreated inward, spending most of his free time playing computer games or surfing the web. Wei felt helpless to improve his situation.
“I didn’t have a lot of control of my own future,” he said. “I feel like I sheltered myself in, I built these walls, these boundaries.”
The identity stage is a crossroads for undocumented immigrant children, according to Fortuna. Kids are faced with huge obstacles that stop them from integrating into American society and they have to decide how to proceed.
They might choose to “make lemonade out of lemons” and find a way to surmount the difficulties presented before them, Fortuna said. But it’s not always so easy.
“The other side of that could be a sense of hopelessness,” she said, “because there are such barriers to goals.”
Stage Five: Integration of self
Wei gradually adapted to his new home during high school and college; he learned English, made some friends and turned to the Internet for information about his immigration status. Eventually, he began helping his father deal with the family’s immigration lawyer.
But he reached a turning point when he joined a volunteer group led by undocumented young people who were Asian and Pacific Islanders. I always thought I was the only one, he remembers thinking.
“That’s how I found other undocumented Asians,” he said. “I started learning more about my own identity by talking to them.”
The group, called ASPIRE, put him on a path toward activism. Together with other young people in the organization, he went public with his immigration status in 2011 — a bold move that transformed his life.
The sense of helplessness began to dissipate. Instead of hiding his immigration status, he used publicity as a way to protect himself. “If you put up a fight, it’s going to be a lot harder for people to deport you,” he said.
Wei eventually qualified for a visa and now works as a development assistant at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a group that seeks to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
All three undocumented young people cited in this piece attended college and have worked with immigrant rights groups in one form or another.
Melissa graduated from Lehman College in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in social work and can be employed legally under a deportation relief program for young people announced by President Obama in 2012. She works at the non-profit Immigrant Justice Corps, which provides legal assistance for undocumented immigrants.
Mariana is set to graduate from Texas A&M with her master’s degree in civil engineering in August; hypothetically, she believes she would be covered by an expanded version of Obama’s deportation relief program, but the expansion is currently tied up in litigation. Unless the court battle is resolved, she won’t be able to work legally when she graduates and wonders if she’ll need to seek a job as a babysitter or housecleaner. She’s also considered moving to a country where she can work legally.
In the final developmental stage outlined by Fortuna, a child integrates their present self and who they are becoming. The outcome isn’t always positive — just as a person could move into the realm of activism, he or she could also slide into despair and become marginalized.
“At each one of these stages, there are different places it can go,” Fortuna said. “I think it really depends on the family and how the family functions in supporting that young person.”