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Stress Related to Immigration Status in Students: A Brief Guide for Schools

This brief guide is designed to provide an overview of detention, deportation, and other immigration status-related stress and its effect on children and families, as well as suggestions for how school personnel can support families in the context of this unique stressor. Please note that the information included in this document was obtained from published reports as well as suggestions from mental health professionals, teachers and other school staff. It is our hope that others might contribute to this guide; in this way it can be a dynamic compilation of practical ideas to support our community members. If you have additional comments or suggestions to add to this report, please email one of us:

Lisa M. Edwards, Ph.D.
Department of Counselor Education
& Counseling Psychology
Marquette University

Jacki Black, MA Ed
Associate Director for Hispanic Initiatives Marquette University

The Context of Immigration Stress

There are more than 11 million individuals residing in the U.S. without legal authorization from the federal government. While the total number of unauthorized or “undocumented” immigrants in the U.S. has remained stable since 2009, there has been a rise in K-12 students with at least one undocumented parent. In 2014 estimates suggested that 7.3% (or about 3.9 million) K-12th grade students in U.S. public and private schools were children of unauthorized parents.1 The vast majority of these children (3.2 million) were U.S.-born, and therefore are citizens. These children are members of “mixed-status families,” or households in which at least one member is a citizen or legal resident and at least one is not.

The context of having a parent, sibling or relative without documentation, or not being documented oneself, is a unique stressor that cannot solely be understood as generic stress or trauma. Families with members who are undocumented often “live in the shadows,” experiencing a lack of safety and fear of deportation. Because of their relationship with students and families, teachers, counselors, and other school personnel are often on the front line of dealing with mental health concerns as they arise, and should be well-informed about the challenges that immigration status issues may present.

How Detention and Deportation Affects Children

Over the past eight years, 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants were deported, not including those who “self-deported.”2 These deportations not only affect the individual, but can also have devastating consequences for families.

A growing body of research suggests that children who experience the detention and deportation of a parent suffer from many short and long-term mental health effects, including loss of appetite, changes in sleep (e.g., nightmares), crying, clinginess, and feelings of fear. Additionally, these children can later exhibit PTSD-like symptoms, including anxiety, withdrawal, and anger/aggression, as well as academic declines at school (for a summary report about the psychosocial impact of detention and deportation see: Brabeck, Lykes, & Lustig, 2013).

In two reports about the direct effects of detention and deportation on families, researchers identified these key findings related to mental health:3,4

Toxic Stress: How the Threat of Detention and Deportation Affects Children

The stress related to detention and deportation not only affects those who have experienced the detention of a parent or those who are undocumented. For example, research suggests that children who are aware of the threat of deportation or who have undocumented parents have higher levels of fear and anxiety, as well as disrupted sleeping and eating.5 Other studies have shown that the threat of deportation negatively affects children’s grades and leads to more students missing school and changing schools.5,6 Additionally, deportation-related stress may in fact spill over to legal residents who experience discrimination and may fear for the future of themselves or their children.7,8

The notion of toxic stress provides a useful framework for understanding how the threat of detention or deportation can negatively affect the physical health, emotional well-being, and educational performance of youth. Toxic stress is the stress from prolonged exposure to serious stress that can harm developing brains and result in psychological, biological and neurological changes.9 In essence, this means that children with knowledge about the potential threat of deportation may be living in a constant, heightened state of anxiety which does not allow the body to return to baseline functioning. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in support of protecting immigrant children against the negative effects of the toxic stress of living in fear of deportation since this type of stress can disrupt a child’s developmental processes and lead to long-term concerns.10

This toxic stress may be intensifying in the current political climate. Over fiscal year 2016, 92% of those deported from the interior of the U.S. had previously been convicted of a crime.2 Following the new administration’s directive to define deportable offenses more broadly, however, many unauthorized immigrants who previously had not been considered high priority targets may now be at greater risk for immigration enforcement action. In the first major immigration strike under the Trump presidency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) launched coordinated raids in at least 12 states, resulting in over 680 detentions of “criminal aliens” – now defined as any unauthorized immigrant - over the course of one week.11 The current administration has also repeatedly called into question the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)  program—President  Obama’s executive  order providing temporary relief from deportation action for many undocumented youth, heightening the uncertainty and anxiety felt by these “DREAMers.”

Behavioral/Emotional Signs of Immigration Status-Related Stress in the Classroom:

Though every child is different, those who have directly experienced the loss of a parent to deportation or those who are coping with the threat related to documentation status may show some of the following signs in the classroom:

How School Personnel Can Support Students in the Classroom:

butterfly image

By displaying this on a white board or desk, students  are more likely to know that you are a “safe” person with whom they can discuss their immigration status–related stress.

How Schools Can Support Students and Families:

Set a tone of safety and respect.

Make your school a “safe space” through public statements of support such as this one from the Minneapolis school board that reaffirms every child’s right to an education. These statements are most effective when grounded in the vision, mission, or stated strategic plan goals of the school or district, and should include language around creating a safe, welcoming environment for all students.

Be aware of the peer dynamics in your school environment. Deal directly with any derogatory language or behaviors from peers that are rooted in condescending attitudes towards immigrants and use these as teachable moments.

Share accurate and helpful information.

Provide direct support and start a referral list.

Encourage advocacy.

Stay informed and educate your faculty and staff.

Schools may not be able to address the root causes of immigration status-related stress for the children they serve, but through increased awareness, proactive policies, displays of support, and providing access to information and resources, they can do their part to live their mission of supporting our community’s students and families.

Resource Guides for Schools


  1. Passel and Cohn (2016). Children of unauthorized immigrants represent rising share of K-12 students Retrieved from of-unauthorized-immigrants-represent-rising-share-of-k-12-students/
  2. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Department of Homeland Security (n.d.) FY 2016 ICE immigration removals. Retrieved from statistics/2016
  3. Koball, H., Capps, R., Perreira, K., Campetella, K., Hooker, S., Pedroza, J.M., … Huerta, S. (2015) Health and Social Service Needs of U.S.-Citizen Children with Detained or Deported Immigrant Parents. Retrieved from Social-Service-Needs-of-US-Citizen-Children-with-Detained-or-Deported-Immigrant- Parents.pdf
  4. Capps, R., Koball, H., Campetella, A., Perreira, K., Hooker, S., &Pedroza, J.M. (2015) Implications of immigration enforcement activities for the well-being of children in immigrant families. Retrieved from: activities-well-being-children-immigrant-families
  5. Human Impact Partners (2013). Family unity, family health. How family-focused immigration reform will mean better health for children and families. Retrieved from: pdf
  6. Passel, J. S., and D. Cohn. (2011). Unauthorized immigrant population: National and state trends, 2010. Retrieved from:
  7. Becerra, D., Androff, D., Cimino, A., Wagaman, M.A., & Blanchard, K.N. (2013). The impact of perceived discrimination and immigration policies upon perceptions of quality of life among Latinos in the United States. Race & Social Problems, 5, 65-78.
  8. Novak, N.L., Geronimus, A.T., and Martinez-Cardoso, A.M. (2017). Change in birth outcomes among infants born to Latina mothers after a major immigration raid. International Journal of  Epidemiology. Retrieved from
  9. Shonkoff, J. P., Boyce, W. T., & McEwen, B. S. (2009). Neuroscience, molecular biology, and the childhood roots of health disparities: Building a new framework for health promotion and disease prevention. Journal of the American Medical Association, 301(21), 2252-2259.
  10. Stein, F. (January 25, 2017). American Academy of Pediatrics Statement on Protecting Immigrant Children. Retrieved from: press-room/Pages/AAPStatementonProtectingImmigrantChildren.aspx
  11. Hauslohner, Abigail, and Sandhya Somashekhar. (2017, February 13) Immigration authorities arrested 680 people in raids last week. Washington Post. Retrieved from: people-in-raids-last-week/2017/02/13/3659da74-f232-11e6-8d72- 263470bf0401_story.html?utm_term=.708ec5821328
  12. Dreby, J. (2012). The burden of deportation on children in Mexican immigrant families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 829–845.
  13. Hacker,  K.,  Chu,  J.,  Leung,  C.,  Marra,  R.,  Brahimi,  M.,  English,  M…&  Marlin,  M.P. (2011). The impact of immigration and customs enforcement on immigrant health: Perceptions of immigrants in Everett, Massachusetts, USA. Social Science Medicine, 73(4), 586-594.
  14. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (2009). Delegation of Immigration Authority Section 287(g) Immigration and Nationality Act. Retrieved from
  15. U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2017). Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest. Immigration-Laws-to-Serve-the-National-Interest.pdf
  16. Weingarten, R., Johnson, L, & Ricker, M.C. (2016) Immigrant and refugee children: A guide for educators and school support staff. Retrieved from


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