Column: The psychology of separation, assimilation and identity

Published July 6 2018
Updated July 9 2018

The theme underlying all of Elizabeth Aranda’s work is this: What’s the lived experience of being an immigrant? As a sociology professor and associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of South Florida, she probes the emotional experience of being in a new community, of trying to put down roots. She looks at the question of citizenship and what it means to belong, whether as an undocumented immigrant or a newly minted American who still feels second-class. We talked to Aranda about her work in light of family separations at the border and the Trump administration’s aggressive crackdown on illegal immigration.

What don’t people understand about family separation?

There’s been a theme of family separation for over a decade, when you look at the rise in deportations that started under President George W. Bush and then escalated under Obama. The sad irony of all of this is when that audio (recorded by ProPublica in a detention center last month) came out, in which you have this child clamoring for their mom and dad, what people failed to realize is that, for over a decade, that same agony has been expressed in households across America when ICE raids their home at 6 a.m. and takes their family away. Did it happen in a detention center? Or did it happen at home? It’s very much on the same page.

How do those deportations compare to those at the border this summer?

I’m not a psychologist, but I would think it’s going to be even worse. Kids that have undergone deportations, they’re still with a caregiver. There’s still a family connection.

When you compare that to being physically and emotionally separated from your caregiver right after crossing the border, which in itself is a traumatic experience ... that, to me, is life-altering. I don’t know how these kids are going to do without major psychological interventions, assuming you can get them back into a stable environment with their caregivers. I feel like it’s going to be a lost cohort of kids.

Can you tell me about the psychological effects of the immigration crackdown more broadly?

I’ve been collecting data on the undocumented population since about 2014. Back then, under Obama’s second term, the household raids had started to decline and the administration was targeting more violent criminals. The people we interviewed, young adults ages 18 to 30, some of whom had DACA, didn’t have this constant fear.

Many of them told the stories of when they were younger, which aligned with the years of Bush’s first and second term, when they were maybe riding in a car and they’d get pulled over. Their parents were nervous. They kind of understood that they were in jeopardy. A police stop because of a broken taillight could turn into their parents getting detained.

Even years later, they were reliving that trauma even just telling us about it, even breaking down. It was an experience where they were just overcome with fear, and they maybe realized the reality of their status. As a kid, you might know you’re undocumented, but actually finding out what that means for your daily life is a very different experience than just knowing you don’t have these papers. When we interviewed them, they were feeling a little bit of relief.

And since Donald Trump became president?

In the interviews we started in September 2017, the levels of distress we’re seeing way surpass the stress we were seeing before Trump became president.

One idea that has emerged is that they have an expiration date, such as when DACA expires. It’s really weird, the parallels between their situation and what happens to people when they’re diagnosed with a terminal illness. All of a sudden you want to do these things in the short term because you have six months to live. “I want to see if I can accelerate and finish my degree or if I can get my own business off the ground.” It’s this sense of urgency that they need to get their affairs in order.

Because of the uncertainty of DACA, that’s blunting their assimilation and distracting them because they have to make backup plans.

Is there an era we can study, or research we can consult, to better understand the effects of what’s happening now?

I can tell you about some research on how immigrants come to identify. The trajectory to full assimilation would be, after the first generation of immigrants come to the U.S., how does that second generation or even the third generation identify? Do they still identify with their country of origin? Do they identify as American?

There was one reputable study that interviewed high school students at three different points in time, first in 1992. Between that first interview and the second, one thing that had changed was Gov. Pete Wilson, who was running for re-election as governor of California, had this whole anti-immigration campaign. It coincided with Proposition 187, which would have barred all undocumented immigrants from any kind of public service, including public school. It passed, though courts deemed it unconstitutional.

When these researchers interviewed the high-schoolers again in 1996, they found there were changes in how they identified, but the change wasn’t toward assimilation. The change was toward more of an ethnic-based identity. If people identified in 1992 as American, four years later they were more likely to identify as Mexican-American.

What changed was the anti-immigration climate. The process that happens among young adults is that they move toward a reactive identity. “If you attack my group, I’m going to cling to my group even more.”

If what the country and government officials want is assimilation, these anti-immigration measures are not going to get us there. They’re going to do the opposite because people, when your collective group comes under attack, you’re going to support that base, your culture of origin, the country of your parents, because you’re going to feel that the country that you feel allegiance to is maybe turning against you.

In the undocumented immigrants I’ve studied, many came as children. They said, “I feel American. I wear my red, white and blue on July Fourth. I know all of the patriotic songs. But when the government tells me that I can’t become legal, or I can’t even get DACA, I don’t feel as if they want me.”

This interview has been condensed.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.