Carmen Valdez: Belonging and identity for children of immigrants

By Carmen Valdez

In my work as a mental health researcher working with immigrant families, I spend a lot of time listening to the children of undocumented parents, but I am still often surprised by what they say to me. “What does it mean to ‘be from here’?” is a question I recently asked José (pseudonym), an 18-year old son of undocumented parents from Mexico. His answer was not simple:

Carmen Valdez

Carmen Valdez, Ph.D.

“I came from Mexico when I was three months old and never went back…I never like went to school or anything there, so I’m not really from there, but I…I don’t consider myself from here, because I don’t have papers either but I, I mean basically I’m from here, but not technically because I wasn’t born here.”

The ambivalence in his response is striking considering that José left Mexico when he was only three months old and grew up entirely in the U.S.

José, like many other adolescents growing up in the shadows of their undocumented status, grapples with what it means to belong in the United States. Of course, adolescence is a time of exploration and questions of belonging are prominent during this time for all young people. Adolescents work through these questions during their transition to emerging adulthood, especially as they enter work, higher education and intimate relationships.

But for adolescents like José, these transitional markers are limited. Without a social security card, they cannot apply for a driver’s license, a scholarship, or even work. Mentally and psychologically, they feel American (and also Mexican) and able to pursue the American dream, but end up demoralized by their limited prospects and learn and internalize that they are un-welcomed, undesirable and unworthy of being American. Immigration policy certainly limits their participation; social discourse de-legitimizes immigrant youth’s lived experiences and aspirations.

Dehumanizing narratives about immigrants have been dominant in our nation’s history, but have increased in the past decade. Recently, these narratives have been successful in minimizing the legitimacy of undocumented youth and their families in the United States and shaping policy.

Soon after the 2016 election, the Trump administration moved to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA intended to defer deportation for an estimated 800,000 undocumented youth arriving in the U.S. as children and to grant them the ability to participate in those rites of passage like earning a driver’s license or getting a work permit.

While a judge has since halted the termination of the program, the Trump administration has portrayed many undocumented youth as gang members who threaten national security. During the recent midterm elections, the administration increased efforts to show undocumented youth as a threat to this country and therefore, reinforce the sentiment that these youth do not have a place in American society.

It is no wonder, then, that youth, like José, attempt to reinvent themselves with an American identity that is both welcoming and hostile to their own well-being. The result is an ongoing struggle between seeing themselves through their own aspirations and experiences and seeing themselves through the eyes of others.

Dehumanizing messages about immigrants are not limited to undocumented youth. Politicians have used the term “anchor babies” for youth born in the U.S. to an undocumented mother, implying these mothers were only after the social services available to their citizen children. This political tactic questions the very legitimacy of U.S.-born children of undocumented parents and aims to justify ending birthright citizenship.

In my work I see how this dehumanization has profound personal and psychological consequences for targeted youth and their parents. Young people like José, live their lives reconciling who they are and where they belong based on their vision of themselves in this country, which stands in contrast to the dehumanizing messages of America’s political debates.

Dehumanizing messages manifest through verbal abuse and also physical attacks. José’s 13 year-old brother, who was born in the United States, still cries when he talks about the abuse he and his mother experienced at a store, where a white woman pushed them and told them to “go back to Mexico.” Other youth I work with experience these messages indirectly when peers or teachers at school invalidate their background, feelings and community assets and/or vilify their community.

More tragically, they sometimes internalize these dehumanizing frames and employ them on others. Some youth of undocumented status who have lived in this country for several years lack empathy for current-day migrants, for example Central Americans fleeing gang violence.

I have heard some of these youth repudiate and dehumanize migrants arriving in the so-called “caravan.” Perhaps youth attempt to reclaim their humanity by distancing themselves from others perceived as undesirable. Regardless, mental health professionals must attend to the complexity of the traumatic stress, social isolation and internalized oppression and shame that is all too common in many of these youth.

How can we change this dehumanization and prevent the longstanding effects of delegitimizing the lives of vulnerable youth and their immigrant families? First, we need to acknowledge that we are creating a crisis of connection, characterized by self-preservation, scapegoating and “othering.” void of a sense of responsibility and compassion for others.

By asking ourselves how the loss of compassion that results from dehumanizing frames harms us and yet how we contribute to such frames, we can rebuild a collective identity, emotional connection and advocacy. Second, we need to empower youth to become activists and “tell truth” about their experiences so they can reclaim their identities and define and own what it means to belong. Finally, let us safeguard programs, such as DACA, that allow youth to work and study so they can live out their aspirations and in so doing, strengthen our communities and collective identity.

Carmen R. Valdez is associate professor in the department of population health, Dell Medical School and in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a Public Voices fellow with the Op-ed Project. This opinion piece was published in The Hill.