DACA Mental Health Crisis: Fear, Policy, and Stigma Prevent Care Access for Himigrants

Phoenix, Arizona – Ileana Salinas, a DACA recipient and program manager at Aliento, faces the uncertainty of renewing her immigration status, which takes a toll on her mental health. The ever-changing immigration policies in the United States add to the challenges she and other DACA recipients face.

As of September 30, 2023, there were 544,960 active DACA recipients in the U.S., with 20,750 of them in Arizona. However, this number may only be a fraction of those eligible to participate in DACA, as the Migration Policy Institute estimated that as many as 1.16 million people in the U.S. and 44,000 in Arizona could be eligible for protection. This uncertainty creates a constant state of fear and anxiety for many undocumented immigrants.

DACA recipients, like Salinas, are ineligible for federal health programs such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and the Affordable Care Act marketplace, contributing to barriers accessing both general health care and mental health care. According to a fact sheet published by the National Immigration Law Center, nearly half of respondents with mental or behavioral health issues said they were not accessing psychiatric or therapeutic mental health services.

Arizona’s anti-immigrant policies, such as SB 1070, have fostered a culture of fear that prevents undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients from accessing the mental health care they need. This fear is not unique to Arizona, as similar legislation is cropping up in other states. Florida’s SB 1718, for example, includes a provision requiring hospitals to ask patients about their immigration status and report that data to the state, deterring undocumented people and their families from seeking health care for fear of being reported to immigration authorities.

Undocumented people in Arizona are not eligible for Medicaid under the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, except under certain conditions. This lack of access to health care adds to the overall fear and uncertainty that prevents immigrants from seeking the care they need.

However, organizations like Aliento are working to provide informal mental health care through community organizing and advocacy campaigns to change policies that indirectly affect the collective mental health of immigrant communities. Salinas’ program, Cultiva, offers informal arts and healing workshops to build community and break down the stigma surrounding mental health in the Latino population.

Overall, the ongoing struggle with immigration policies and the fear of deportation create significant barriers for undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients to access the mental health care and resources they need. The sense of insecurity and fear prevents these individuals from seeking the assistance they require, contributing to a broader mental health crisis within immigrant communities.