dcyphr | The Distress of Citizen-Children with Detained and Deported Parents


Many undocumented immigrants with children are detained and deported in the United States. Their children are often overlooked in discussions about immigration and law enforcement. U.S-born children of undocumented parents, or citizen-children, are at risk for adverse psychological outcomes when their families are broken apart by detention and deportation. In this study, the researchers compared the psychological status of three categories of citizen-children: (1) those living in Mexico with their deported parents, (2) those in the U.S whose parents were detained or deported, and (3) those whose undocumented parents were not detained or deported, who served as a control group. The researchers compared these categories on measures of behavioral adjustment, depression, anxiety, and self-concept. They found all groups had elevated levels of distress, and differences between children whose parents experienced detention or deportation and those who did not. These findings are important for citizen-children’s clinical needs, and also for future research and immigration policy.


The researchers wanted to understand if there were psychological differences between children whose undocumented parents had been detained or deported and those whose parents were not.


Undocumented immigrants are at constant risk of deportation. Many undocumented immigrants have children who are citizens. These families are called “mixed-status” families. The number of children in mixed-status families in the U.S is estimated to be 9 million. These children are referred as “citizen-children.” Citizen-children suffer from the constant risk of their parents being arrested, detained, and/or deported which makes them more vulnerable for negative psychological effects and impacts on development. The actual arrest, detention, and/or deportation of their parents complete this trauma and have further detrimental effects on their mental health. 

There has been little attention and research about citizen-children. In the past decade, there have been nearly 2 million deportations with 81% to Latin America. Of 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S, 52% are Mexican and are at greatest risk for deportation. There have been some reports of emotional distress in children when their parents were detained.

Children who are separated from their parents are more likely to be affected by depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Citizen-children experience many psychological stressors due to relocations as parents look for work, separation from extended families, and fear of discovery by ICE officials. This study adds to a small but growing body of research that explores the psychological effects of parental detention/deportation on citizen-children in mixed-status families.

Parents’ undocumented status is associated with poverty, discrimination, parental distress, and poor physical and mental health of their children. They are more likely to live below the federal poverty line, suffer from food insecurity, and unable to access public healthcare and services such as Medicaid, food stamps, and child care subsidies for fear of deportation. Citizen-children are also less likely to be enrolled in public preschool programs and have lower rates of positive development-promoting activities, which are critical for development and their mental health.

The recent surge in immigration enforcement by ICE has put undocumented parents and their children at increased risk for separation, economic hardship, and trauma. The looming risk of arrest, detention, and deportation raises tension and stress and strains relationships between parents and their children. This risk is not the only thing that compromises citizen-children’s mental health--the criminalization of their parents, relatives, and neighbors by immigration policies have also shown to raise citizen-children’s stress levels.

This study is unique in two ways: data is collected directly from citizen-children, and also includes citizen-children living both in the U.S and in Mexico. The research question was: “how do the citizen-children whose parents have been deported compare with citizen-children whose parents have not been deported?”


83 participants were recruited. 31 were citizen-children who lived in Mexico with their deported parents, 18 lived in the U.S after their parents were deported, and 34 were unaffected by parental deportation. 60% were female and almost all were enrolled in school. 67.5, 30.1, and 2.4% were living with both parents, with one parent, and neither parent respectively.

For data collected using the DSM-oriented scales, none of the three subgroups were in the borderline or clinical range. However, group differences were significant for ADHD; children whose parents were detained/deported but remained in the U.S were more likely to report problems with ADHD than children who were unaffected by detention/deportation. 

None of the subgroups had probable depression according to the CDI-2, but children who lived with their deported parents in Mexico had the highest scores for depressive symptoms. Significant differences were found for two scales: emotional problems and negative mood/physical symptoms; children who lived with their deported parents in Mexico were more likely to report these problems.

All three subgroups had probable anxiety disorders, but no significant differences between subgroups were observed.

For self-concept assessed by Piers-Harris 2, citizen-children whose undocumented parents had not been subjected to detention/deportation deportation had the highest average scores and had higher scores for “freedom from anxiety” and “happiness and satisfaction.”

Comparisons between children with parents who had been detained/deported versus those who had detained/deported parents showed significantly higher levels of depression, negative mood/physical symptoms, and negative self-esteem.


The findings of this study were consistent with other studies that showed that immigration policy and deportation practices have a significant impact on citizen-children’s mental health. Children with detained/deported parents reported more depressive symptoms, ADHD problems, emotional problems, and lower levels of freedom from anxiety and happiness and satisfaction. Conversely, children without detained/deported parents had more positive self-concepts and perceptions. Age and gender had no significant impacts on these results. Further research is necessary to confirm this.

The researchers suggest that for future binational studies, such as this study, need larger samples to raise statistical power and a narrower age group to ensure that each citizen-child is comparable to the next.

This study has several practice and policy implications. For clinical practitioners, this study shows that close attention must be paid for citizen-children whose parents have been deported or who live in fear of their parents’ deportability. In addition, immigration enforcement policies should be reformed to address the wellbeing of citizen-children during the detention/deportation of their parents. 



Three groups of U.S-born citizen-children of Mexican immigrant parents were recruited from 2012-2014. All were between 8 and 15 years of age, as this stage in life is critical for cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development. The first group was citizen-children living in Mexico with deported parents. The second group was citizen-children who remained in the U.S after their parents were detained, deported, or returned to the U.S after being deported. The last group served as the control group, and was made up of citizen-children whose undocumented Mexican immigrant parents had never been detained or deported.


Three instruments were used to measure psychosocial issues, and were chosen as they have been successfully used with both English- and Spanish-speaking Hispanic populations. They were (1) the Child Behavior Checklist and Youth Self-Reported DSM-Oriented Scales, (2) the Children’s Depression Inventory 2nd Edition, the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders, and (3) the Piers-Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale 2.

Demographic Variables

Demographic information that was collected included age, gender, school enrollment, and current living arrangement (without parents, one parent, or both parents).

Analytic Strategy

First, the three groups of children were compared using analyses of variance (ANOVAs) for continuous variables. Then, the citizen-children were categorized into two groups, (1) those directly affected by deportation who lived in Mexico and the U.S and (2) those living in the U.S unaffected by deportation. These groups were analyzed for clinical differences between those directly affected by deportation and those who were not. All analyses were conducted by SPSS.