OPINION: The Psychological Effects of Unauthorized Immigration

May 10, 2021
3:58 PM

Migrant children lie inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by the US Customs and Border Protection, (CBP), in Donna, Texas Tuesday, March 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills, Pool)

PHOENIX — People who take the risk to come to the United States unauthorized face tremendous, psychological, biological and economic challenges when doing so.  They are an extremely vulnerable population.  The consequences of unauthorized immigration, beyond the political, are more human-centered. They are people just like you and me. Therefore, the focus should be on the humanity of this issue.

Unfortunately, the current reality is that unauthorized immigration is an economic issue. There is no longer any reason to sugar coat it. Undocumented immigrants are a low-cost, some would say, de facto “slave” labor force that supports our economy in a significant manner. They do the jobs that no one else will do at very low wages —farmworkers, manufacturing, food processing plants— that allow us to have our food, clothing, and other items at relatively low cost. Want to keep your two-dollar head of lettuce? Then keep the immigrants coming.

Many would argue that hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars are spent on education, health care and other social programs that aid these people. That indeed may be accurate. However, the economic positive is in the trillions and far outweigh any expenditures we might pay. This is why unauthorized immigration has been allowed to continue more or less unabated for over 100 years. Quite simply, it is too profitable not to allow it to continue.

This is a personal issue for me. I grew up in a border town. The social, economic, familial and human ties that exist there, as well as the cultural dynamics, are truly unique. When I was growing up, I could cross the border without papers not because I was an American citizen by birth, but because those managing the border knew me by name. There was a relationship of understanding and interdependence that benefited both sides. We all understood the value of cross-border exchange and worked well within the limitations of such.

Prior to the end of slavery in 1865, there were very few border laws in this country. Unauthorized immigration began when slavery was abolished. The need for low-wage labor persisted and someone had to take their place. This is a reality that many Americans refuse to accept.

Immigrants from the Global South were not the first group to face such challenges. The Chinese were used this way to build the railroads in the West. It happened with east Asians, Germans, Dutch, Italians, the Irish and other nationalities, many documented in the tablets and pictures on Ellis Island in New York. The only labor force in our history who came to the U.S. by force were slaves. All others came here by choice and learned to manage the difficulties here. This is part of the culture we created.

The U.S. has a particularly difficult issue due to its Constitution which states that any person born on U.S. soil automatically becomes a citizen. It is a unique situation. Turkish immigrants in Germany, for example, live work and pay taxes there but are not citizens even if born on German soil. They exist in uncertainty and can be deported at any time. In reality, they are not citizens of any country. These same issues exist for North Africans migrating to Spain and Italy. Middle Easterners to France and other countries. The U.S.’s unique situation has created a sociological issue that is fascinating and totally unique. The ability for an undocumented individual to then give birth to a citizen leads to some very unusual complications.

In the 1980s, many people from Central America came to the U.S. to escape the violence of civil wars raging in their home countries. Today, these same people are escaping domestic gang violence brought on by the internal use of drugs. Prior to the development of middle classes in these countries, drugs were export only. Drugs were sold and transported across the border to sate the demands of our citizens here in the U.S. while funding political wars in those countries—El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The drugs were not consumed domestically. That has changed.

The level of danger and violence is so great that many families send their unaccompanied children into uncertainty.  How dangerous, unstable, and corrupt does a place have to be that a person would risk the lives of their children to strangers? Incredibly so. Most Americans can not fathom the levels of desperation that many of these people have come to. The profit motive for local gangs and municipal corruption is now the issue.

When the profitability of drugs and local use of the aforementioned blossoms, violence becomes a good business locally and thus the citizenry gets preyed upon by those attempting to seize control of the internal market for drugs. Corruption ensues due to the amount of money being made by the gangs and you have dangerous internal strife. Think Colombia during the days of Pablo Escobar. He literally took on the government of the country using bribes, violence, and eventually terror to get his way. It was not until the intervention by the U.S. intelligence agencies, the military, and others that the Colombian government were able to wrestle away his power.

Who, of course, suffers the most? The innocent population stuck between multiple warring factions with little or no support. Many choose to flee. However, flight has a cost. Those that choose to escape the violence and corruption expose themselves to significant abuse. Women and children are particularly at risk as human trafficking has become a very profitable business, often controlled by the same gangs who trade in guns and drugs.

The result? They become victims of significant trauma. How does a person who has been raped, abused, beaten, sold, and forcibly impoverished assimilate well into a new and foreign society that promised them safety and opportunity for a better life?

These are immediate consequences of unauthorized immigration at the personal level that could take a generation to fix. Who is going to replace the parents of separated children? Who will help educate and assimilate the children to become productive members of society? The trauma that many of these people experience is unimaginable to most of us. That should be the driving factor of how we treat these individuals—as people first and as a problem a very distant second.

The United States spent billions of dollars to help out Colombia in its war against the cartels. We engaged in an expensive and truly unwinnable “war on drugs.” Both gave tacit nods to the immigrant issue. Would it not be a better investment of our time and resources to instead invest in the people who have arrived rather than to try and stem their flow? Could we not show the world a better system of managing immigration? Could we not come to a new and unique compromise that benefits all?

Multiple administrations, notably those of Reagan and Bush, fought to provide a way to allow workers from mostly Mexico and Central America to keep working in the States because they understood the reality of the situation.  “Amnesty” was the term used to promote the acceptance of this vital labor force. The continued fear of immigrants, their persecution, and forced segregation is a huge cost economically, socially, and ethically for all of us.

It seems infinitely more logical and practical to accept the reality of the situation, extend the hand of help and allow for a system that benefits all involved. Unfortunately, as long as the business of low-wage workers remains, unauthorized immigration will continue as post-modern slavery. To this point, sadly, business will continue to win out over humanity.

Immigration is real. It will not cease. To find a way to work with it without fighting the facts is the only logical way forward. The best way to accomplish this is to accept a bit of what you fear. Add something new to the melting pot called the United States of America.  So far, in this long and distorted history of immigration in this and many countries, we always come out better when we stand united and use our values as a guiding path forward.


Dr. Lauro Amezcua-Patino is the clinical voice of The Only You (Solo Tú), a podcast dedicated to simplifying the complex issues of the mind and mental illness. Originally from Mexico, Dr. Amezcua-Patino has been practicing in the metropolitan Phoenix area for over 30 years. Twitter: @SuSaludMental.