This is not a love story. This is a story that talks about sensitivity, vulnerability and understanding of being with someone who is or was once undocumented. The life of undocumented immigrants who grew up in the United States, also known as the 1.5 generation, can be very difficult and confusing.
As a mental health practitioner and researcher, I was invited to join a panel to address mental health issues for this specific undocumented immigrant college student’s community. I formulated a support group, where the students shared their stories about love and vulnerability. I would like to share the story of a girl who immigrated from Nigeria when she was seven years old and her life trajectory as influenced by her undocumented status.
As an undocumented child, she was told to never reveal her immigration status to anyone, including her teachers and peers. At the playgrounds, she remained cautious when forming new bonds with peers. She learned to manipulate and deflect conversations away from topics that might reveal this vulnerable identity. The only time she could talk about this topic, was at home, with her mother and her brother. They were her only protection, but also her deepest fear of abandonment — as she knew that she can be separated from them at any time.
Shame and Guilt
She related an incident in her senior year of high school, when she asked a boy, a friend who she liked and built a relationship with through her freshman and sophomore year of high school, to help her with her financial aid application for college. He jokingly questioned her immigration status, “You don’t have papers?” All her fears immediately came to light. Triggered, she abruptly left the room to go home and cry in her mother’s lap.
Upon her return, her friend had apologized, but she kept him at bay, choosing not to give him any opportunity to exploit her fear of feeling powerless, deceived and abandoned by him. She did not give this relationship another chance and denigrated all her relationships whenever she felt the same comfort as she did with this one friend. A pattern started to emerge, where she could not maintain friendships as simple interpersonal conflicts resulted in an intense provocation of anxiety and rage. Understand her struggle.
After she graduated high school, she started community college. As the semester wrapped up, one of her classmates, who she liked, invited her to come drinking at a local jazz bar, as it was the last day of class for the semester. As she stood in line with the rest of the people to enter the bar, she was denied entry because she did not have a legal form of state ID. This minor rejection evoked the past experience of feeling abandoned and ashamed. She remained frozen, while her classmate nudged her to capture her attention. As she looked around, she could not hear what her classmate was saying, she pushed him aside and left for home. Recalling the incident, she reflected, “I felt like there was a ball stuck in my throat, I couldn’t speak… as soon as I snapped out of it, I left and walked home, which is 5 miles away… I didn’t even have the capacity to think of taking the train.”
When she went home, she told her family what happened. They listened to her and poured her a glass of wine, to recreate this celebration at home, for the end of the semester. Helpless yet safe, she wondered if anyone would understand her struggle.
For her, family was always safe. Until her mother married a man with legal status — for love and to possibly legalize their immigration status in the future. Not realizing that this person was an outsider, she showed similar attachment to him as she did for her brother and mother. She said, “I was so happy to know there is one more person in my life who would understand me, I took my safety at home for granted and dropped my guard as I though he was a part of the family.”
Her mother was the authority figure and now there was a new authority figure, a caretaker who she could idealize and hope to share her struggle with. However, as she vented to him, he would make sexual advances. She would again dissociate, not fully conscious of her surroundings and unable to fathom the severity of the situation, she was molested. When she told her mother and brother about the incident, the stepfather threatened them with deportation by calling Immigration and Custom Enforcement on them. The very next day, in the midst of night, the family ran away from home, leaving everything behind to take shelter at a church, later settling in a smaller town, away from this dangerous person.
After sharing this story, she added, “I wondered if this would keep happening to me, will I always end up putting myself in similar humiliating situations?” She seemed to have blamed herself for the abuse she experienced, rather than seeing herself as the innocent victim.
“No one understand me,” she told me. “You will never understand me.”
“It’s true,” I said. “I will never understand your pain… no one will understand your pain.”
She interrupted me and said, “Thank you for saying that… it feels so good to hear that… everyone always acted like they understood me… even when they didn’t and that hurts so much!”
Eventually, she returned to her college, taking a semester off to recuperate. She wanted to reconnect with her old friends and make ones. Except, she had difficulty with intimacy and the relationships became fragmented. One mistake and she would accuse her friends of neglect and abandonment.
After talking about several broken friendship incidents, she would say, “I don’t even know what trust is anymore… I don’t know who to trust.”
I would respond, “It takes time to build trust, especially after everything you have been through… you will know when you feel safe in a friendship.”
From a clinical lens, I knew she was showing symptoms of hyperarousal, flashback and dissociation, that prevented her from forming healthy intimate relationships.
Over time, she knew her current maladaptive reactions to her friendships were preventing her from establishing healthy and secure relationships. She started journaling and reflecting on her relationships, only to realize the importance of forming new experiences without prematurely sabotaging them in order to prevent the possibility of any emotional hurt. As a result, she only engaged in some casual relationships, only to find a pattern of entering relationships that she knows will never turn into anything serious or long term. Upon further reflection, she recognized her vulnerability to exposing herself to risk of repeated victimization, especially in intimate relationships.
After attaining her associated degree, she gave another shot to a serious relationship. Six months into the relationship, her partner wanted to go on vacation to Cancun together. He invited her to come with him, only to be reminded that she was undocumented, and she cannot travel out of the country. So they decide to go local and take a trip to Florida.
Over time, however, the limitations turned into resentment and the relationship fell apart. Instead of seeing this as a failure, she recognized it as a renewed sense of control. In other words, at least, she knew to end the relationship as her partner did not have the capacity to support her in her survival of her marginalized identity. There was a new sense of autonomy and empowerment. She would define this as the ability to form relationships that were based on her wants and not her needs.
In 2015, she became eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which prevented her from being deported and gave her accessibility to health insurance. With psychotherapy and psychiatric support, she discovered that her symptoms were like symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder. When she was alone, intrusive thoughts of physical and emotional abuse came flooding in, limiting her ability to be present in the moment and causing her to dissociate. And, when she was questioned about anything associated with her immigration status, she became defensive and everything was perceived as a threat or her enemy.
Even as a temporarily documented person, she had difficulty letting go of these various survival traits. If she felt like she was not in control of something, she ran away from those scenarios, including friendships and intimate relationships. The outcome was isolation and alienation, which manifested as depression and anxiety.
She is one of the fortunate survivors of such severe hardship that comes along with the identity of being a 1.5 generation undocumented immigrant. Her story bears one conclusion: being undocumented and the hardship associated with such status, can manifest as a form of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
She is your co-worker, neighbor and classmate. This article is a reminder to be compassionate towards your peers, even if you do not know about their immigration status. Be sensitive and understanding of the hardships associated with immigration status. More importantly, advocate for the undocumented immigrants to have access to mental health care.