How My Immigration Status Has Affected My Mental Health

As an undocumented immigrant in the United States, Edgar Vasquez has had to battle anxiety and fear of being deported. Here's how he's managing his mental health and learning to help others like him.

Edgar VazquezCourtesy Edgar Vazquez

Edgar Vazquez, 22, of Houston, was brought to the United States from Mexico, by his parents when he was four years old. In high school, he was one of the first children of undocumented parents to receive Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, which allowed him to go to college. However, with U.S. immigration laws in flux, he finds himself in a gray area. This uncertainty has lead to chronic anxiety, stress, and fear. His feelings are severe enough to be paralyzing, so learning to manage his mental health is vital to being able to keep moving forward towards his dream of becoming a public servant.

What immigration means to me

I’ve always known I’m from Mexico. From the time I immigrated to the United States with my parents, my family has talked about where we are from and how proud we are of our heritage. We also love the United States and all the opportunities we’ve had here and are equally proud of being American. However, we’re not all equally “American” when it comes to citizenship. My parents crossed the border as undocumented workers. My sister, who was born two years after we came here, is a full citizen. Me? I’m in a strange gray area where the rules are constantly changing and that uncertainty has affected my entire life, especially my mental health. I’m not just affected by immigration status, I’m defined by it.

Defining the ‘American dream’

After coming here in 2002, my parents settled in Houston. They were determined to work hard to achieve the American dream for us, starting in restaurants, as a cook and dishwasher. Eventually, they saved up enough money to start their own air conditioning business. While things were difficult at first, the business took off, and soon we were living comfortably. I attended elementary and middle school with all my friends and even though my parents talked about our immigration status, it didn’t really change my day-to-day life. I could do all the same things as my friends.

Living as an undocumented American

This all changed in high school. In 2011, when I was 15 years old, my parents sat me down for a talk. At that time, all my friends were getting their learner’s permits in preparation for getting their driver’s licenses when they turned 16 but because I wasn’t a citizen, I wouldn’t be able to do that. Not only would I not be able to get a driver’s license—a right of passage for teens—but I wouldn’t be able to get a passport or a Social Security card, things that would have a huge impact on my future opportunities. College, scholarships, jobs were all uncertain. That was the first time I really realized that even though I was a proud American, I wasn’t American like my friends were. I had worries they didn’t have. I wasn’t alone, however, and soon discovered there were many other kids in my same strange position.

What is DACA and why it’s important

In 2012, the U.S. government passed Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an immigration policy designed to help kids like me who were brought to this country as children. The plan gave us a way to move forward with our lives by applying for a renewable two-year period of “deferred action.” This meant that during this time we couldn’t be deported and we could get work permits, driver’s licenses, and go to college in the United States. My family hired an immigration lawyer and I was in one of the first groups to apply and be accepted.

But while DACA bought me some breathing room, it didn’t make my immigration issues disappear. This had a huge impact on my mental health, in different ways. On one hand, this made me become passionate about immigration rights and politics in general. I joined the National Hispanic Institute and began learning everything I could about public service. I volunteered in local political campaigns, interned at a political action committee (PAC), and took every opportunity to speak publicly. It helped me discover my fire and what I’m most passionate about.

Psychological effects of immigration status

While I was confident in public, I was living in a constant state of fear and chronic anxiety. A little bit of the fear was for myself, but a lot of it was for my family. I was still very young—just a teenager—and yet my parents and I had to discuss what we would do if I came home one day and they were gone, deported. I would have to take care of my younger sister and manage the business alone. That knowledge that everything in my life as I knew it could change in an instant weighed heavily on me.

Dealing with coronavirus without healthcare

Another huge worry for me was healthcare. My sister is the only one of us who has access to healthcare so my parents and I just count our blessings that we were all healthy and hope we stay that way. This fear has become even more magnified during the Covid-19 pandemic. We absolutely cannot afford to get sick, yet the business requires my dad to be inside people’s homes regularly. (And believe me, in Texas, air-conditioning is an essential service!) [Learn how Covid-19 hits people of color harder.}

College as an undocumented student

When I enrolled as a political science major at the University of Houston, I discovered a new concern: Money. Just because I was allowed to go to college didn’t mean the government was going to help me pay for it. Because I’m not considered a citizen or legal resident, I’m not eligible for federal student aid or scholarships. I’ve been able to earn about half of my tuition through scholarships (not federal) and local aid, and my family is covering the rest.

Legal and financial woes of DACA maintenance

Then there are the legal and financial costs of maintaining my DACA status. You need to hire an immigration lawyer and those costs on top of the regular fees can be several thousand dollars. It takes about three to four months to get the application processed. Then it has to be renewed every two years, so almost as soon as you finish the process you have to start back over. Everything has to be filed in just the right way so I have to make sure I stay on top of all of it, which can be very stressful.

Political uncertainty is the biggest source of anxiety

Since President Trump was elected on an anti-immigration platform, things have felt very chaotic. One of the first things the Trump administration did was to try to end DACA. In September 2017, the Department of Homeland Security DHS rescinded DACA and announced that new applications would be rejected and renewal requests would be phased out. This would leave me back in that difficult state of immigration limbo. Depression and anxiety began to creep in and I tried to fight off the hopeless feelings.

The case went to the Supreme Court. The next three years, as we waited for their ruling, was probably when my mental health was at its worst and my anxiety and fear were the highest. I thought about what might happen every day and it felt impossible to plan and work towards my future goals while I was constantly worried about my present. Chronic anxiety affects physical health, as well, and it all began to add up, turning into a sense of fear that threatened to become paralyzing.

Finding a therapist and redefining fear

Fortunately, during this time, my parents could see how worried and scared I was and they wanted to help me. Even though we didn’t have health insurance, my dad found a way to get me counseling by trading services with one of his clients who is a therapist. I started going to therapy at 16 and have continued on ever since. I still see my therapist about once a month. This has made a huge difference for me.

My counselor helped me redefine my fear as adversity. Instead of something that paralyzes me, it motivates me. My immigration-related worries haven’t disappeared, but I’ve been able to learn to see them as opportunities instead. It’s not an easy mental shift but it has been a powerful and life-changing revelation for me. Recognizing the impossible situation that I and so many other people have been put in has inspired me to change and helped me discover my passion, my life’s work.

Resolving immigration issues

In 2019, I won a prestigious internship through College to Congress, a non-profit that provides college students with paid summer internships with congresspeople, focusing on increasing access to public service to people of all races and socioeconomic levels. I was one of ten people chosen out of over 1,500 applicants and it would be the first step of achieving my dreams—that is, as long as my immigration status stayed stable.

Decreasing my anxiety

Finally, in July 2020, the Supreme Court rejected the attempt to end DACA. As soon as I heard the ruling, my hope was restored. The combination of the ruling and my increased political activism, along with consistent therapy, has caused my anxiety to drop significantly. The political hurdles aren’t over—for instance, the current administration is only processing renewals and isn’t accepting new DACA applications—but I look forward to being a part of the solution.

Looking at a bright future ahead

In May 2021, I will graduate from college, becoming the first person in my family to do so, and then I will do my internship at the U.S. Congress. From there I see a bright future as a public servant, with the power to inspire and help others. It’s hard to live with the uncertainty and fear that comes with immigration issues while staying mentally healthy, which is why I’m so passionate about making sure other kids in similar situations won’t have to go through the same experience as I did.

College to Congress is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit working to create a more inclusive and effective Congress by empowering the next generation of public servants. For more information, please visit www.CollegetoCongress.org.

—As told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen

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Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen has been covering health and fitness for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 13 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She teaches fitness classes in her spare time. She lives in Denver with her husband, four children, and three pets.