The Mental Health Effects of the Threat of Deportation

Family separation due to deportation can be traumatizing for the millions of children living in families with an undocumented parent.Between 2009 and 2013, 5.3 million children in the U.S. had an undocumented parent. 85 percent of those children, of 4.24 million, were U.S. born.

Living with Fear

The threat of deportation causes fear and anxiety for children of undocumented immigrants. If a parent is deported, their children’s anxiety worsens. Prolonged anxiety creates toxic stress that hinders learning and reasoning.

Short-Term Effects

  • Withdrawal
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Disrupted eating and sleeping patterns
  • Anger
  • Depression

Long-Term Effects

  • PTSD
  • Poor identity formation
  • Difficulty forming relationships
  • Distrust of authority figures
  • Behavioral and academic difficulties

Barriers to Accessing Mental Health Services  

Families with undocumented immigrants encounter barriers to accessing mental health services which can exacerbate mental health problems.

  • Culture: Mental health services may not be culturally or linguistically appropriate.
  • Fear: Families fear accessing services will expose a family member’s undocumented status.
  • Poverty — Struggling families have difficulty affording resources to keep children physically and mentally healthy.
  • Discrimination — Families with undocumented immigrants are targets of racism and racial profiling.


  • National Association of Social Workers:
  • Migration Policy Institute:
  • American Psychological Association:
  • Harvard University Center on the Developing Child:

USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work

Phone Number: 877-700-4679
Email Address:


© 2021 The University of Southern California for its USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. All rights reserved.