Lost in an increasingly heated debate about U.S. immigration reform is a growing problem of immigrant mental and emotional health, a public-health doctor says.
Tragedies like the Thanksgiving weekend 2011 suicide of high school senior Joaquin Luna Jr., 18, of Mission, Texas -- who said he realized he had "no chance in becoming a civil engineer," despite excellent grades, because he was undocumented -- put an occasional face on immigrant psychosocial challenges.
Such incidents energize controversy over the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who go to college. But unspoken are untold immigrant psychosocial ills, Dr. Manuel Carballo -- executive director of the International Center for Migration, Health and Development and a former professor of clinical public health at Columbia University -- told United Press International.
One of the most prevalent, but least addressed, is a secret suffering known as "migratory mourning," stemming from immigrants' recurring feelings of loss and separation after leaving their family, culture and social environment, he said.
"They're mourning for the social security that they have left," Carballo told UPI in a phone interview from his office in Geneva, Switzerland. "They're mourning for children and other close relatives that they have left. And they're mourning because wherever they're living and working, they don't feel wanted."
"Migratory mourning magnifies the stresses immigrants feel for years after they've moved to another country, and can often be felt for two or more generations," said Maria Elena Ferrer, whose Humanamente organization outside New York City conducts programs to help with migratory-mourning recovery.
Host societies undergo their own "mourning," Ferrer and Carballo told UPI, as people see the nature of their communities begin to change with the arrival of immigrants.
Immigrants, documented or not, face a variety of pressures, with xenophobia and discrimination commonplace, Carballo said.
"They don't feel wanted -- they know they're needed, but they don't feel wanted," he said. "And they are abused in many ways."
Needed vs. wanted is a key distinction, Carballo said. The United States and other countries depend on immigrants economically, even if they refuse to acknowledge it.
"Give me one country that today likes to recognize that it has a large migrant population that it is dependent on," he said. "No one wants to say that."
But "agricultural systems in California and Texas would never survive without these people. Domestic care in Europe would never be possible without all these undocumented migrants who work for very cheap prices, are not unionized and rarely complain," he told UPI.
Foreign-born people account for 1 in 6 civilian workers in the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau says, and they generate about 10 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product -- more than $1 trillion a year -- the non-profit Center for Immigration Studies in Washington estimates.
Despite their economic value, "these are people we're not interested in," Carballo said. "They have become, in a sense, labor units -- not human resources but labor units -- and we tend to deny their humanity because it's too inconvenient to recognize their humanity."
He pointed to Arizona's tough immigration law, known as SB 1070, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, as a graphic example of psychosocial stress that documented and undocumented immigrants experience.
The law requires police to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop if they have "reasonable suspicion" to believe the person is "unlawfully present in the United States."
This means "someone can be stopped on the street because their profile is that of someone south of the border," Carballo told UPI.
"Imagine trying to walk along the street," he said. "Imagine wanting to go shopping. Imagine wanting to be in the public. Imagine wanting to contribute to Arizona society."
On the whole, immigrants everywhere want to contribute to and feel part of host societies, he said.
Instead, due to migratory mourning and feeling unwanted, they often experience chronic long-term and debilitating depression and remain marginalized from mainstream society, Carballo said.
His institute has done studies "where something like 70 percent of the people we've interviewed say that, on any given day, they want to cry," he said. "They get up wanting to cry. They go through the day wanting to cry.
"What is it that they want to cry about? They want to cry about the fact that they're neither at home nor wanted and respected in the countries they've moved to," he told UPI.
Ignoring these psychosocial ills not only hurts immigrants' chances of succeeding in their adopted country, but over the long term also increases their dependency on host governments, he said.
In addition, it increases the likelihood immigrants will become angry with the host society, he said.
"This, from the point of view of social stability and political stability, is also something that we need to take into account," he said.
Ferrer pointed to a significant increase in reported domestic violence and alcoholism among immigrants in the United States.
The crisis could be alleviated if senior politicians made public statements affirming the value immigrants bring to the host society, Carballo said.
They could say: "You are people that we need. You are people that we welcome," Carballo said. "We may not want you to stay -- that's another issue -- but while you're here, while you're working for us, while you're contributing to our system, we will go out of our way to make your stay socially and physically healthy."
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