Death of loved ones is hard on undocumented immigrants

Rice University
Office of Public Affairs / News & Media Relations

Editor’s note: A high-definition video highlighting the research is available in the “Related materials” section of the release.


Amy McCaig

Death of loved ones is hard on undocumented immigrants

HOUSTON – (March 13, 2019) – The death of a loved one is never easy to endure, but for undocumented immigrants, the psychological toll is particularly rough, according to new research from Rice University.

Photo of Luz Garcini

Luz Garcini

“Miles over mind: Transnational death and its association with psychological distress among undocumented Mexican immigrants” appears in the journal Death Studies. It examines how the loss of a loved one who was living outside the U.S. impacts relatives living in the U.S. without documentation.

The study of 248 undocumented Mexican immigrants living in a medium-size city near the U.S.-Mexico border found that a high proportion of these individuals were experiencing stress associated with the death of a loved one living in a different country.

Eighty-five percent of study participants had experienced a transnational death in their families, and those individuals were more than twice as likely to meet the criteria for clinically significant psychological distress compared with individuals who had not.

“Death is always a stressful and sad time, but this is particularly true for individuals living in the U.S. without documentation,” said Luz Garcini, a Rice Academy affiliate in the Department of Psychological Sciences and a scholar at Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy whose research focuses on identification of the physical and mental health needs of the undocumented community. “Over the course of our studies with undocumented immigrants, we have noticed that a large number are experiencing stress associated with transnational death.”

Garcini said multiple issues factor into why undocumented individuals have a harder time dealing with the death of loved ones. She said they are often blamed for being in the U.S. illegally and, because of their status, feel limited from traveling to visit loved ones who are near death. When their loved one dies, they often feel guilt for their inability to be with that person as they died, and they are often unable to express their grief in a typical way due to the lack of resources and support networks available to people who live in the country legally.

“Ultimately, they talk about it less and blame themselves more, which is associated with increased stress,” she said.

Garcini said the experiences of undocumented immigrants ultimately impact their communities as a whole, so it is in the best interest of everyone to find ways to support them. She hopes her research will lead to the development of cost-effective and easily disseminated interventions to improve the health of these people.

The cross-sectional study used respondent-driven sampling (RDS), which is currently the most reliable method to study hard-to-reach populations and has been used previously in the study of undocumented immigrants. Participants were 18 years or older, of Mexican origin and undocumented. Data was collected between 2014 and 2015.

Co-authors of the study include Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychology at Rice; Thania Galvan, a graduate student at the University of Denver; Ryan Brown and Michelle Chen, graduate students at Rice; Khadija Ziauddin, a research assistant at Rice; and Elizabeth Klonoff, vice president of research affairs at the University of Central Florida.

The research was funded by the Ford Foundation. To request a copy of the study, contact Amy McCaig, senior media relations specialist at Rice, at 713-348-6777.


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Related materials:

High-definition video:

Video credit: Brandon Martin.

Luz Garcini bio:

Luz Garcini photo:

Photo credit: Jeff Fitlow

Located on a 300-acre forested campus in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 20 universities by U.S. News & World Report. Rice has highly respected schools of Architecture, Business, Continuing Studies, Engineering, Humanities, Music, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences and is home to the Baker Institute for Public Policy. With 3,962 undergraduates and 3,027 graduate students, Rice’s undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio is just under 6-to-1. Its residential college system builds close-knit communities and lifelong friendships, just one reason why Rice is ranked No. 1 for lots of race/class interaction and No. 2 for quality of life by the Princeton Review. Rice is also rated as a best value among private universities by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.