Research connects anxiety with undocumented transitions

A smile masks the memories of Tomas Pendola’s painful past, his struggles as an undocumented immigrant in a world dominated by American culture.

His transition eyeglasses hide the strain from years of challenging Advanced Placement classes in high school and competing for scholarships to attend Saint Thomas University in Miami Gardens, despite not having a visa.

He said he felt like an alien in his own home.

Pendola mentors his 16-year-old sister Marlena and said he longs to match his 24-year-old brother Tobias’ persistence in finding a job. Only weeks ago he upgraded from a worn-out 1992 lime green Honda Civic with 200,000 miles to a 1999 white Saturn with 120,000 miles.

Pendola, 23, now has a master’s in chemistry and aspires to teach science, but he has yet to obtain a Social Security card needed to get a regular job.

Now volunteer communications liaison for SWER (Students Working for Equal Rights,) he was once a DREAMer

Each day in the United States an estimated 10,000 undocumented immigrants, children and adults, seek refuge in the United States — 417 an hour, seven per minute.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security now estimates that total population of undocumented immigrants in America exceeds 11.5 million, equaling the population of Ohio.

DREAMers may be a part of America’s cultural soup, but many are not prepared for the emotional strain that comes with life in the shadows. Those pressures are compounded by a system that stymies their quest for education.

“No access to education devalues many of the DREAMers that I know,” Pendola said. “They’re invalidated and demeaned. They’re just not worth what they’re worth in their country (of origin).”

In more than half the states, undocumented students in the public school system can attend school through high school graduation, but the cost of out-of-state tuition and fees limits access to advanced education.

Jobs in the USA, a government database to help Americans find jobs, reported that the two most common industries for immigrants are agriculture and construction, with only 19 percent working in jobs like nursing and health care services.

“They call my dad a ‘skilled laborer,’ but he’s really just a carpenter,” Pendola said. “He used to have a degree in design. You can have the degree to be a doctor, accountant or engineer in every other country in the world, but here you’re just a laborer.”

Despite the stress of possible deportation and economic woes, many DREAMers cannot pay for psychological treatment, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association, the largest psychological organization in the United States.

“Most of these DREAMers can’t even afford bare necessities,” Pendola said. “They want help, but in the moment they just can’t believe that it is happening to them.”

Often, their hope isn’t powerful enough to protect them from winding up in ICE immigrant detention centers, most of which are currently operated by private prison contractors. Pendola brands the detention centers as “businesses that thrive off emotional anguish.”

The National Immigrant Justice Center says there is no argument that many detainees experience extreme stress in federal custody. But no mental health services are offered at the detention facilities, including for the hundreds of people held at the Krome Detention Center in western Miami Dade County and the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach.

“You can hear despair, you can hear tears,” Pendola said. “The workers trick the immigrants into saying that they deserve to be there.”

Miami-based clinical psychologist Wade Silverman said those undocumented residents who choose to hide their status also suffer extreme emotional trauma.

“The ability to accept a new culture is different with every child,” Silverman said. “It really depends on whether the child has properly become part of American culture. Some don’t witness or react to anything and some just simply shut down.”

“A recent migrant may feel like the odd man out,” Silverman said. “Eventually, these immigrants can suffer from chronic anxiety and chronic depression. They’ll feel like they are a split second away from being deported and like they can’t find a home.”

For Pendola, the emotional stress has greatly diminished. Through SWER, he said he aims to promote awareness about DREAMers at local universities.

“The most important thing is to make DREAMers acknowledge that they are people too,” Pendola said.

“They have got to learn that they aren’t always going to be looked down upon.”