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Being an undocumented immigrant threw me into a mental health crisis – here's why

Watching the recent ICE raids has made many, including Know Your Value’s Daniela Pierre-Bravo, concerned about the long-term mental health effects on the children in these families.
Know Your Value contributor Daniela Pierre-Bravo.
Know Your Value contributor Daniela Pierre-Bravo.Jai Lennard

When I was a teenager, as the lights went off and I’d try falling asleep, I'd often find myself with a pit in my stomach, uncontrollably crying and gasping for air. It took me nearly a decade to realize that I was suffering from anxiety attacks, which stemmed from being undocumented.

I was 11 years old when my family came to the United States from Chile through Mexico. Little did I know just how my life would forever be changed when we crossed that border.

I’ve always felt grateful for the sacrifice my parents made so I could have a better future, and I've made a conscious effort to pay it forward. But after learning about my status in high school, I began to question everything. Would I be able to attend college? Would I be able to get a job? I also realized my family, the people I loved most, could be taken away — at any moment and without notice. It was my worst fear.

These fears are a reality for many children across America, as United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency conducts raids, most recently at seven food processing plants in six Mississippi cities. So many children are without answers on the whereabouts of their parents.

I struggled to watch 11-year-old Magdalena Gomez Gregorio plead for answers in Mississippi as she begged for the release of her father. Instead of finishing the first day of classes and running to after-school activities or doing homework, she was left imploring that her father be released.

Magdalena, like many other children who were told their parents were being held in custody by ICE, was left not knowing when she would see her family again. The only solace many of these kids had was staying at a community center’s gymnasium overnight with strangers.

The fear and devastation these kids are feeling brought me back to my own childhood — knowing I could lose my parents and have my world upended at any moment. Every little thing would trigger anxiety over the fact my family could be separated. It could be from something seemingly insignificant, like when my parents were late picking me up from volleyball practice, or any time they took too long to answer their phones. Because they worked several jobs on the other side of town, this happened a lot.

Watching the recent raids also made me concerned about the long-term mental health effects these children may face as a result of constantly being in a state of anxiety. It’s a feeling I know all too well, living in a country where, unfortunately, hateful rhetoric against immigrants exists. It can feel debilitating.

The threat of deportation consumes your thoughts and take energy away from everything else in your life.

The stressors of being undocumented reared its ugly head in many ways, years later. For example, I’d push away healthy relationships, I would shut down emotionally when I really needed to connect, or I’d have panic attacks when small things went wrong.

Being in the shadows and not telling anyone about my undocumented status until my 20s was the product of fear. As a result, I bottled up my emotions. To this day, it’s something I’m trying to understand and work through.

It’s not easy to admit, but I felt conflicting feelings toward my parents for a long time. Why would they put me in this situation of feeling helpless and living in fear? But on the other side, I saw their great respect and love for this country. I saw how they worked three jobs to put all five of their children in private schools. They struggled to make ends meet, but they always had a can-do mentality.

It was also extremely important to them to give back to their community —to the town and country they felt so grateful to be in. The little time they spent not working was focused on volunteering at the local church and mobilizing other members of the community. How could I resent that?

I’ll never forget the extra shifts my entire family picked up, working nights cleaning movie theaters so I could pay for my last semesters of college. I was behind in payments and close to being told I couldn’t return. How could I begrudge them for that?

But the truth is (no matter what your politics are), the scar, as a result from the fear and anxiety over being potentially separated from your family, stays with you.

Know Your Value contributor Daniela Pierre-Bravo.
Know Your Value contributor Daniela Pierre-Bravo.Jai Lennard

If I had a chance to talk to these kids whose family members are being detained, I would tell them not to give up on themselves or their ability to believe they belong in this country. I would want them to know that the feelings of loneliness, vulnerability and anxiety can turn into resilience and mental strength — no matter how hard it may seem to do that now.

I’d tell them to not bottle up their feelings and talk about what they’re going through, even though it may seem like no one will understand. I’d tell them they are not defined by their environment and no one can limit their potential. I’d tell them none of this is their fault. I’d tell them they are not alone.

To help children affected by family separation you can donate here, and for the latest on the efforts on the ground follow the ACLU.

Daniela Pierre-Bravo is Know Your Value's millennial contributor. She is also co-author with Mika Brzezinski of the bestselling book "Earn It!: Know Your Value and Grow Your Career, in Your 20s and Beyond." You can follow her on social media @dpierrebravo.