Photo by Master Steve Rapport, Flickr CC

The recent increase in hate crimes and normalization of public anti-immigrant attitudes have contributed to undocumented immigrants fearing family separation and deportation. For the roughly 2.5 million undocumented children and adults living in the U.S., socioeconomic resources like physical and mental healthcare services, employment, and education are limited. Under these conditions, “ontological security” – or the degree to which one feels secure within their social environment – becomes vital. A new study by Elizabeth Vaquera, Elizabeth Aranda, Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez provides new insight into the ways in which young undocumented adults develop a sense of security and attempt to cope with their precarious legal status.

The authors interviewed 53 undocumented and formerly undocumented young adults residing in Florida that were recruited through immigration advocacy organizations. Participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 33 and at least half migrated from Mexico. Interviews addressed several topics related to emotional and psychological well-being, including background immigration stories, family life, educational history, and racial/ethnic identity.

The researchers find that undocumented young adults experience a variety of emotions related to their status. For example, many participants reported low self-esteem. Other participants reported feeling frustrated that their status limited access to a number of colleges and jobs for which they could participate. Additional feelings included isolation, fear, anxiety and insecurity. One person described the constant fear of public officials who could potentially remove them or members of their family, saying, “Growing up it was any person that looked official. You just stay away from them … mall security guards, anyone that looked official. They terrified me!” For some, retaining Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) provided some temporary relief, though many still struggled with sadness and depression.

To cope with these feelings, the interviewees were found to engage in both positive and negative coping strategies. Positive coping mechanisms included engaging in charity work, confiding in close family and friends, playing sports, and listening to music. Others reported feeling little hope in improved circumstances and turned to more disruptive behaviors. These participants resorted to things like drinking, smoking, harming themselves, displaying anger, and pondering suicidal thoughts. Yet despite these feelings, the authors note that networking with peers of similar legal statuses helps create strong peer networks and may help empower young undocumented adults to develop positive coping strategies and solutions. As we move forward in the current political climate, pro-immigrant advocacy organizations will be an important piece to supporting undocumented individuals and families.