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The Pandemic’s Harmful Effect On Undocumented People’s Mental Health

A man and woman strain to touch each other but are separated by an amorphous, see-through barrier in this illustration.
“Not being able to visit family if they are sick ... it just makes the wounds deeper."
(Alborz Kamalizad
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COVID-19 has affected Southern Californians' mental health in ways we’re only just beginning to understand. And for some, the stressors of the pandemic have created an added layer of anxiety on top of an already deeply uncertain world.

Surveys of undocumented people in California during the pandemic reveal a level of distress one mental health expert called “striking” and “heartbreaking.”

It’s something Dr. Norma Ramirez knows at both a personal and professional level.

‘It Just Makes The Wounds Deeper’

Ramirez entered the U.S. without legal authorization when she was five-years-old. She said growing up in Las Vegas, she always did really well in school. But Ramirez was denied entry to a college prep program because she didn’t have a social security number.

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“I grew up thinking that I could pursue anything that I wanted and suddenly it was like, nope,” she said.

Eventually she did manage to get into college. Later on, Ramirez got temporary legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — DACA.

When she went to work for an immigration nonprofit, Ramirez said she was so struck by the mental health struggles of undocumented people that she decided to make psychology her life’s work.

Ramirez sought help with her own mental health too, but she said she went through three therapists, one of whom told her, “‘If you want to be a therapist, go to Mexico.’”

[I was] just [so] overwhelmed with stress that my body was not responding the way it would have normally.
— Dr. Norma Ramirez

Now, Dr. Ramirez is a clinical psychologist who works in the Northridge area, mostly with children. She said she’s proud of being able to provide the culturally competent help she didn’t get as a kid. Many of her clients are Latino and in families with mixed immigration status.

Ramirez said for many undocumented families, the pandemic became yet another worry in an already vulnerable existence, especially if the whole family isn’t together in the U.S.

“Not being able to visit family if they are sick ... It just makes the wounds deeper,” she said. “Like [you] can’t even say goodbye.”

Ramirez was not immune to that stress. The continued uncertainty of the DACA program’s future and the challenge of finishing grad school during the pandemic took a huge emotional toll on her.

“[I was] just [so] overwhelmed with stress that my body was not responding the way it would have normally,” Ramirez recalled.

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She said she completely blocked out some of 2020 from her memory. That suffering inspired Ramirez to produce a series of self-care videos last year for undocumented immigrants.

“When we live with a system that is constantly trying to oppress us, rest and taking care of ourselves is a form of resistance,” she says in one video. “It’s important to emphasize that as we’re going through a pandemic.”

‘Everything That Has To Do With COVID Has An Immigration Component To It’

In a national survey by the immigrant rights group, United We Dream, the majority of respondents said COVID-19 affected their emotional health. More people mentioned impacts to their mental health than they did to their physical health or financial situation.

Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, senior advocacy manager at United We Dream, said as an immigrant herself, those responses don’t surprise her.

“Everything that has to do with COVID has an immigration component to it,” she said. “If we lose our jobs, do we lose maybe a visa that we have that’s connected to it? If we get sick and we have to go to the hospital, will we be picked up by ICE?”

If we lose our jobs, do we lose maybe a visa that we have that’s connected to it? If we get sick and we have to go to the hospital, will we be picked up by ICE?
— Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, senior advocacy manager at United We Dream

Mental health concerns also rose to the surface in a survey last year of more than 1,000 undocumented undergrads at California public universities.

About one-in-three reported anxiety and/or depression at a level that warranted clinical treatment. Nearly three out of four believed they needed to see a professional therapist.

“A lot of these students live in homes where they don’t have their separate bedroom ... where they would be able to attend class virtually, uninterrupted, and a lot of these students had to take care of younger siblings or children,” said Mercedes Valadez, a Cal State Sacramento professor who worked on the survey.

Valadez says she’d like to see colleges hire more counselors, especially ones familiar with issues that concern undocumented people.

‘A Lot Of Strengths’

Dr. Melanie Domenech Rodríguez, a psychology professor at Utah State University who led the United We Dream study, said it was “heartbreaking” to see the level of mental distress undocumented people were reporting.

Even as COVID-19 was spreading rapidly across the globe, participants in the survey reported “higher stress about their immigration status than about the pandemic,” according to the survey.

“The fact that the immigration-related stress was higher, it caught my eye,” Domenech Rodríguez said.

But she said there were some encouraging signs, too.

“When we looked at people’s coping styles, we see that people are using mostly pretty effective coping strategies,” Domenech Rodríguez said.

Those strategies included meditation, exercise and binging Netflix, too.

Nascimento of United We Dream has also had to find ways to deal with life in the pandemic, especially as a DACA recipient waiting to find out if the program will survive legal challenges.

She said one of the biggest breakthroughs she had in therapy was finally accepting that it’s a reasonable reaction to her situation to have anxiety and depression.

“It’s not that there’s anything broken inside me or with my brain," Nascimento said. "It’s my circumstances."

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