Well-Being//

A Clinical Psychologist Explains the Toll the DACA Debate Has on Dreamers

'It’s like your family throwing you out.'

While Donald Trump has reportedly come around on preserving Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 executive order issued by President Obama that protects 800,000 young immigrants and, in a deep sense, allows them to integrate into American society, the exact future of all these young people is still up in the air.

While DACA is primarily a public policy issue—one that affects millions of people when you take family members into account—it’s also a mental health one. A Stanford-led study published in the prestigious journal Science last month found that children of undocumented mothers who qualified for DACA had less than half the chance of developing fear-driven mental illnesses like anxiety, depression or intense feelings of hopelessness compared to kids of undocumented mothers who didn’t qualify for the program.

In order to get a sense of what all this uncertainty is doing to these young people, Thrive Global spoke with Joseph Gorin, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who runs a fully Spanish and English-speaking group practice in Washington, D.C. His team specializes in immigration issues—which, as the below interview attests to, have been thrown into even higher stakes than usual. He explained what the threat of a DACA repeal can do to a person, how potentially getting kicked out of the only country you’ve ever called home is like getting kicked out of your own family and why collective action is perhaps the best way to cope.

THRIVE GLOBAL: I can only imagine the existential anxiety the young people who qualify for DACA are experiencing right now. How would you describe the feeling?

JOSEPH GORIN: It’s moving from a state of feeling like you’re held and valued to where you’re being rejected and devalued. Different Dreamers [or people protected by DACA] are going to have different levels of resilience. But folks who are devalued by society are already more prone to mental health issues, whether it’s added levels of depression or anxiety or a clinical diagnosis.

It’s as if we as a society are saying we don’t like you, don’t value you, and we don’t want you here. We all know those feelings of being not wanted—but not because of our immigration status.

TG: A metaphor I keep returning to is attachment theory: how the interactions you have with your parents, whether they’re consistent or not, receptive to your needs or not, shapes the way you view the world and yourself. There are so many images of America as caregiver, like the inscription on the Statue of Liberty—Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. The threat of the DACA repeal pulls that security away.

JG: It’s like your family throwing you out, and that has powerful psychological repercussions for somebody. It’s unanchoring, unmooring, and all of a sudden daily interactions become fraught with this overarching sense of threat; the fact that you might walk against a traffic light and that might result in being removed from the only world you’ve ever known.

Citizens feel an unconscious security. None of us have to worry about getting kicked out for some small offense. If I jaywalk and a cop stops me, I don’t even think of it. With Dreamers and undocumented folks, any moment it could be taken all away.

TG: And hypervigilance— being constantly on guard—is a symptom of so many problematic conditions, from paranoia to insecure attachment. It’s not exactly healthy for people.

JG: When you’re hypervigilant, your amygdala is working overtime, which means you’re on a higher alert than you should be. You’re in crisis mode to a degree. There’s more fear and anxiety; even if you’re just going to work or going to class, the experience has an emotional tone.

In a way it’s not a psychological problem; it’s adaptive. It’s an understandable adaptive response, because you have to be vigilant—there is a threat out there. Hypervigilance is not the same as paranoia.

Most folks in DACA have known this was a possibility. Trump didn’t make secret his wishes to make a war on immigrants. It’s not a surprise, but the reality is quite different than the possibility. I suspect folks with DACA are just starting to work this news though their system.

The devaluing has already happened. You’ve got folks bickering about your life. There’s a level of powerlessness that isn’t a psychological powerlessness; it’s quite literal. There are other people making decisions about where and how you live your life. Donald Trump and Chuck Schumer are making deals with your life. Even if they make the right deal, the sense of fragility and assault is already there. If someone pulls a gun to your head and says they’re going to shoot you and they don’t shoot you, there’s still a sense of threat, of powerlessness.

TG: What would being deported be like for a Dreamer?

JG: There are dramatic differences if you’re shipped off to England or France or more likely El Salvador or Honduras. But being shipped off to any country would be jarring; the devaluing would be etched in stone. The lack of familiarity would create a lot of uncertainty, and that would be combined with having already gone through this period of rejection.

Then there are issues of how you’re viewed in a new country, sympathetically or not sympathetically, and that’s out of your control. Young men getting sent to El Salvador or Honduras, they can be viewed as potential recruits or victims for gangs—people see them as having strong ties to the US, or more resources.

Because of my own particular practice, a disproportionate share of people I see with immigration problems are Spanish speaking. I can tell you, kids getting sent back to Mexico, Guatemala—there’s anxiety combined with the actual threats that lie ahead. You could be targeted and there’s nothing you can do about it. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of folks who can’t find a safe haven in the U.S. because of DACA had a lot of mental health problems—there’s a reasonable likelihood of victimization, and less likelihood of significant upward employment and economic life.

TG: So if you’re in this situation, what can you do?

JG: To the degree that one has power, utilize it. It comes in numbers and in connection. When one becomes active in a social cause, especially one that’s so personally compelling for folks involved in it, there’s a kind of connection and validation that can help fight some of the ills that come with being devalued and disconnected. They can feel agency, they can feel like they’re doing something not only for their own benefit but the benefit of others. I think most folks feel good when they’re helping not only themselves but others, taking action to help other people, and creating interpersonal connection. I think that’s a lot more meaningful than getting psychotherapy. This is not a psychological problem; if one buys into the powerlessness, that’s a psychological problem.

What’s not a psychological problem is the circumstance—people are being devalued and threatened. The messages you’re telling yourself are different if you effectively help yourself than if you’ve been rescued externally. With trauma there are a lot of factors that lead to resilience, and agency is one of those factors. A sense of interpersonal connection and social support also lend to greater resilience. The more someone takes an active part in their own life to enact meaningful changes, the more they’ll feel a sense of strength and power. 

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