“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.”
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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.”
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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.”