What Isolation Does to Undocumented Immigrants

The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the lonely, confined lives many immigrants in the United States were already living.

Jovanna Tosello

One of the first times I met with Antonio, a middle-aged undocumented man in Queens, he was an hour late.

When he arrived, panting, he explained that while he was on the subway, word spread among passengers that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were waiting at the next station. Antonio stayed on the train for several more stops—but when he got off, he said he saw agents at that station too. This was the only day that entire month, he told me, that he had risked taking the subway.

Antonio, who asked to be identified by his first name only to protect his privacy, managed to evade the officers. But experiences such as this, he told me, are why he had restricted his movements as much as possible. Other than going to and from his job—Antonio worked at a New York City construction company—our interview, he said, was the first time he’d left his apartment in recent memory.

This was in August 2019. Last month, on April 18, Antonio died of COVID-19.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced much of the world’s population into lockdown, many undocumented immigrants in the United States were used to confining themselves in the way that Antonio did, living in fear not of infection, but of discovery. According to academics, clinicians, and migrants themselves, isolation is a fundamental part of undocumented life in America.

“I crossed through the desert and across a river without food or drink. And when I arrived here, the reality was much worse than I had believed it would be,” Antonio told me. “You can’t go to the park, can’t go to church to distract yourself, because ICE could arrive at any moment. Life becomes a battle against anxiety.”

Antonio, who left his village in Guatemala six years ago because he couldn’t find work, was the only member of his family in the Northeast. At first, he said, he was overwhelmed by the experience of being alone in a totally foreign country, unable to understand English or navigate the subway system. He was desperate to find work so that he could repay the smuggler who’d brought him across the border, knowing that every day his wife and children came closer to losing their house to foreclosure. Antonio said that he often didn’t have enough money for food, let alone to pay a cellphone bill that would enable him to connect with his family back home.

In time, Antonio began to get to know other Central American men who were far from family, friends, and everything they’d ever known. He came to understand that his experience—defined by disorientation, loneliness, and anxiety—was common.

“If you pay attention,” he said, “you will see that almost every immigrant feels alone and isolated from everything. You leave everything behind. In extreme cases, you lose contact with your family because there aren’t ways to keep in touch. You lose your children and your spouse because you can’t communicate. And when the family disintegrates, depression arrives.”

The week before we met, he said, a man he’d worked with had hanged himself—the third suicide Antonio had heard of that year. “That’s the migrant experience in the United States,” he said. “Fighting against the current just to survive.”

Isolation typically magnifies and multiplies other forms of psychological suffering, Claudia Salazar, the vice president of clinics, recovery, and rehabilitative services for Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, told me. The nonprofit provides medical care for thousands of undocumented individuals. Many migrants fleeing volatile situations in their home countries, she said, come to the U.S. bearing trauma from past experiences—such as poverty, illness, violence, and abuse—as well as from the journey itself. Then, once in the U.S., these individuals’ fear of deportation drives them to isolate themselves, which prevents them from making social connections that could help mitigate distress.

Rachel Goldstein, a psychologist who works in New York City public hospitals, and whose clients include many undocumented people, described the insidious effects of this when we spoke. “For some, stepped-up ICE raids have injected fear into the most mundane activities,” she said. “For many, though, the impact is more subtle. I think a lot of people are living with a heightened sense of being unwanted, or even hated—and there’s a risk of targets of discrimination … turning this hatred inward and internalizing a sense of shame and inferiority.”

Now, Goldstein said, the pandemic compounds the vulnerability and sense of precariousness that had always loomed among the undocumented community. Salazar, too, said that the undocumented community is feeling the same anxiety and isolation as before—which, in the current environment, translate into medical emergencies. “People are waiting until the very last minute to call an ambulance or go to the hospital,” she told me, “because they’re fearful their names will go to the government if they’re tested for COVID-19.” She said that by the time many people do call, it’s too late.

This fear, coupled with the high rate of death in New York City as a whole, has led to extreme levels of suffering and crisis in the undocumented community she serves. When we spoke, she said that in the beginning of May, referrals to Catholic Charities’ outpatient mental-health clinics rose by 75 percent.

Experts say that the effects of these struggles can be multigenerational. “Children [of undocumented people] sense their parents’ fear, and they become anxious too,” Salazar said. Prior to the pandemic, she said, “Kids report[ed] their parents not even allowing them to have playdates because [of] their fear of letting someone into their family that’s going to figure out that they’re undocumented.”

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, the author of The Undocumented Americans, who is the daughter of undocumented immigrants and is undocumented herself, says that fear can strain the parent-child relationship. “In my relationship with my parents, I’m unable to parse the parts that are love and the parts that are guilt,” she said. “I don’t know which parts are obligation, which parts are pity, and which parts are gratitude. And I think that’s true of a lot of children of immigrants.”

For some undocumented immigrants, substances provide temporary relief. “They’re at home at night, they’re having trouble sleeping, so they just [drink] a little bit,” Salazar said, adding that she has seen increased substance abuse among her clients since the onset of the pandemic. However, drinking can quickly become a primary coping mechanism—and spiral into addiction. “People drink alcohol to forget their miseries,” Antonio told me. In fact, he said, when Guatemalans he knew heard that a member of their community had died in the U.S., the first question they asked was: “Was it because of depression or the drink?”

Though life as an undocumented person in the U.S. has never been easy, the caregivers, academics, and immigrants I spoke with who arrived before 2017 all emphasized that these problems have worsened since Donald Trump took office. Salazar said that in the past year, the number of clients seeking treatment at her clinics has halved; she believes that this is because of concerns about ICE agents’ potential presence at medical facilities. (This is a valid concern: A recent report by U.S. Customs and Border Protection revealed that in the first half of 2019 alone, agents spent an unprecedented 153,000 hours monitoring hospitals—an average of 69 trips a day. Antonio believed that these tactics were working as intended. “This is Trump’s war against the migrant. It’s a psychological war,” he said.

Cornejo Villavicencio thinks that the suffering of undocumented migrants is “absolutely a public-health crisis.” David Becerra, a professor and a Southwest Borderlands Scholar at Arizona State University, agrees. In an as-yet-unpublished study, he has found that compared with immigrants who are in the country legally, undocumented immigrants who fear deportation are 2.9 times more likely to report symptoms of depression, 8.5 times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety, and 5.9 times more likely to report symptoms of stress. And other studies have shown that the undocumented population is far more likely to experience these symptoms than the population at large: Approximately 14 percent of undocumented adults living in the U.S. have major depressive disorder, for instance, compared with 7 percent of the general population; 8 percent have panic disorder, which is nearly three times higher than the rate in the general population.

So in addition to whatever traumatic experiences may have led people to migrate from their home countries in the first place, the condition of being undocumented in the U.S. can constitute another trauma in itself. But, according to Luz, an undocumented Mexican woman who has lived in New York City for more than 20 years, it’s a trauma that must be endured to survive.

Speaking in her social worker’s office, Luz, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for privacy reasons, recalled her life immediately after arriving in the U.S. Luz said that she had been a victim of domestic violence back in Mexico, and that she saw “going north”—leaving her 3-year-old son with her mother—as her only option. As is the case for so many migrants, especially women, the journey itself was traumatic: Luz says that she met women who had been held captive and raped; she saw other migrants who were injured or too slow to keep up with smugglers left to die in the desert. When she arrived in New York, Luz was scared and malnourished, and had a swollen foot because of a rattlesnake bite—but she was excited to reunite with her sister, whom she hadn’t seen in years.

But the experience was not what she had been expecting. “What I was imagining was totally different,” she recalled. “I realized when I arrived here that I wouldn’t be seeing my sister, that she was working all night and sleeping during the day. And so I felt even more alone in this country, with no one.”

For young people who make the journey alone, this misalignment between expectation and reality can be particularly upsetting. José, a 20-year-old from Guatemala who asked to be identified by his middle name to protect his privacy, left his family to work in construction near New York City. When he first arrived, he told me, he spent all of his free time alone in his room; he was too afraid to venture outside, and couldn’t afford a cellphone to call home. He said that he has sometimes felt discriminated against by American citizens, and that he thinks his employers take advantage of his undocumented status.

However, José said, the hardest aspect of his new life has been seeing people his age having fun, going to school, and living a balanced life. “They have an advantage that I don’t have,” he told me. “My life here is waking up early, enduring hunger, leaving work late.” Since the start of the pandemic, he said, he doesn’t see anyone other than the people he works with. Like many day laborers, at first José remained sheltered inside; however, he recently began working again, out of economic necessity. He pointed out that his co-workers who are not undocumented are receiving financial assistance from the government, which adds to his sense of alienation from those around him.

Goldstein said that these senses of isolation and loss—for previous identities and missed opportunities—are common, and painful. “Being undocumented means giving up one’s career and professional identity, often in exchange for menial labor,” she said; it is particularly destabilizing for people who already feel disconnected from their pasts, cultures, and loved ones.

And the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief a phenomenon that many people I spoke with say is one of the hardest things about being undocumented: the prospect of dying alone. Antonio, whom I first met in a coffee shop in Queens, contracted the virus early on in New York City’s outbreak; ultimately, even his habit of self-isolation, honed through years of evading ICE, did not protect him.

He lived out his last days in a Brooklyn hospital, struggling to communicate with medical personnel who did not speak Spanish. Antonio’s family, who depended on money that he sent back to Guatemala, learned of his location only after he was already in a coma. Though they fought to navigate unfamiliar hospital bureaucracy as they managed Antonio’s care, by far the most difficult part, his family told me, was that they never got to say goodbye.

This is true for many families—some migrants die before their loved ones even know they’ve contracted the disease. As I was reporting this story, a friend of mine in Guatemala reached out to me on behalf of his neighbor, who’d learned that her husband had died of the virus alone in his apartment on Long Island. The isolation that had kept her husband safe for years may have been, in the end, what ensured his death.