Undocumented immigrants report stress, psychological and physical loss

Many undocumented Mexican immigrants suffer psychological and physical losses related to their migration to the U.S., according to a new study from researchers at Rice University.

Photo of Luz Garcini

Luz Garcini

The study, “High Price Paid: Loss and Distress Among Undocumented Mexican Immigrants,” appears in the Journal of Latinx Psychology. It examines migration-related loss and psychological stress among undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S. The lead author hopes the research will highlight the mental health concerns and the challenges faced by this vulnerable population.

“Learning about and quantifying the impact of migration-related loss on the wellbeing of undocumented immigrants is essential to identify strategies helpful to lessen the negative effects of such losses,” said Luz Garcini, a postdoctoral research fellow in Rice’s Department of Psychological Sciences, a faculty scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy and the study’s lead author.

Garcini studied the prevalence of different types of loss among undocumented Mexican immigrants in high-risk neighborhoods. She and her fellow authors were also interested in identifying the prevalence of clinically significant distress associated with this loss.

They organized these losses in five categories: symbolic self, which assesses the loss of traditional cultural beliefs, values and behaviors; interdependence, which assesses the loss of social position and support; home, which assesses the loss of house, land, country and possessions; interpersonal, which assesses the death of or separation from friends or family; and intrapersonal integrity, which assesses the loss of autonomy, well-being and familiar food.

The authors found that migration-related loss was extremely high across all categories. Almost all of the immigrants in the study suffered due to the loss of their homes (98 percent), long separation from family members (96 percent) and loss of their symbolic self (95 percent). About 87 percent reported loss of interdependence and about 81 percent reported loss of intrapersonal integrity.

These losses were also linked to psychological stress, the study found. Psychological stress was measured using the Brief Symptom Inventory, a 53-item scale that is widely used to determine clinically relevant levels of psychological stress. Immigrants who experienced personal loss, particularly death of family members abroad or physical separation from family, reported the highest levels of psychological stress.

Data for the study was collected from November 2014 to January 2015. The average age of participants was 38 years old. Most of them were female, married, had little formal education and lived on a monthly household income of less than $2,000. Most of them had been living in the U.S. for more than 10 years in mixed-status families, where some relatives are undocumented and others are legal residents or U.S. citizens.

The study was co-authored by Thania Galvan of the University of Denver, Juan Pena of the University of New Mexico, Elizabeth Klonoff of the University of Central Florida, Deborah Parra-Medina of the University of Texas, and Khadija Ziauddin and Christopher Fagundes of Rice.

The study was funded by the Ford Foundation.

About Amy McCaig

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