“My Life was Filled with Constant Anxiety”: Anti-Immigrant Discrimination, Undocumented Status, and Their Mental Health Implications for Brazilian Immigrants

Abstract

Immigration reform and the various costs associated with undocumented immigration have been in national headlines in the past few years. The growth of Latinos as the US’ largest ethno-racial minority has sparked debates about the “browning” of the United States and led to an increase in anti-immigrant discrimination. While some researchers have documented the effects of racial discrimination on the mental health of ethno-racial minorities in the United States, less has explored how anti-immigrant discrimination and undocumented status influence the mental and psychological well-being of Latino immigrants, more specifically Brazilian immigrants, in the United States. Relying on data from in-depth interviews conducted with 49 Brazilian return migrants who immigrated to the United States and subsequently returned to Brazil, this paper will examine how their experiences living as racialized and primarily undocumented immigrants in the United States influenced their mental health. Specifically, I demonstrate that respondents experienced ethno-racial and anti-immigrant discrimination and endured various challenges that had negative implications for their mental health. This paper will also discuss additional factors that researchers should take into account when examining immigrants’ mental health and the challenges immigrants encounter in a racialized society with increasing anti-immigrant sentiment.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Though many Brazilian immigrants self-classify as white due to Brazilian standards of white racial classification, they are generally externally perceived as nonwhite and Hispanic by Americans (Margolis 1994; Martes 2007; Joseph forthcoming).

  2. 2.

    Due to the devaluing of the US Dollar and more stringent policies for obtaining visas to the US, Valadarenses are also now migrating to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and New Zealand (Siqueira 2009).

  3. 3.

    While the data was collected in 2007 and 2008, respondents provided retrospective accounts of their experiences before, during, and after the US migration. Retrospective reporting is a limitation of the study. However, it is common in social scientific research and understood that participants’ memories of events may degrade over time (Trivellato 1999; Wellman 2007). In analyzing, interpreting, and reporting the results, I was very attentive to concerns about retrospective reporting among respondents.

  4. 4.

    Individuals who enter the US with tourist visas are not permitted to work with those visas.

  5. 5.

    I used NVivo’s matrix function to explore potential differences based on these demographic differences and found none.

  6. 6.

    Though the US Census asks individuals of Hispanic origin to classify ethnically as Hispanic and also racially (e.g. black, white), I combined the categories “Hispanic/Latino” in the question about categorical racial classification in the US since: (1) literature on Brazilian immigrants indicates that they have exposure to both terms in the US and (2) some returnees used the terms interchangeably during pre-test interviews (Martes 2007).

  7. 7.

    There were two open-ended questions that directly asked participants about discrimination in the US. The first was “did you at any time experience what would be considered racism in the US?” The second question was “at any time in your social relationships, have you felt discriminated against in the US or Brazil? If so, do you think you were discriminated against because of your race or skin color?” I reviewed each respondent’s answers to these questions to calculate the percentage of return migrants who experienced discrimination and what type of discrimination respondents experienced in the US.

  8. 8.

    A larger percentage of respondents who self-classified as black reported experiencing discrimination relative to those in other racial categories because far fewer respondents self-classified as black (N = 4).

  9. 9.

    Each quote was translated from Brazilian Portuguese and includes the respondent’s pseudonym, self-ascribed racial classification when the interview occurred, age, and state of residence while living in the US.

  10. 10.

    The remaining 10% (N = 5/49) provided responses to this question that could not be described as neither positive nor negative.

  11. 11.

    While some of the words and behavior of respondents could be indicative of standardized symptoms in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), respondents did not report being clinically diagnosed with any mental disorders or seeking professional treatment while living in the US or after returning to Brazil.

  12. 12.

    The other primary reasons for returning: (1) documentation status concerns, or fears of or actual deportation: 25% (N = 11); (2) family reasons: 57% (N = 28); and (3) miscellaneous reasons: 12% (N = 6).

  13. 13.

    The data does not indicate or suggest whether or not returnees’ mental states changed after returning home and/or if any of them sought assistance or treatment from mental health professionals.

  14. 14.

    The research on permanent return migration for other ethnic groups in the US is very limited although a few studies have been conducted on West Indians and Asian Pacific Islanders (Conway and Potter 2006; Plaza and Henry 2006; Iredale et al. 2003). However, these studies have not explicitly examined return migrants’ mental health.

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Acknowledgments

The author acknowledges James Jackson, Alford Young, Jr., Sarah Burgard, James House, the National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant Program, Institute of International Education Fulbright Student Grant Program, Ford Foundation Diversity Predoctoral Fellowship Program, Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council. She also to thank the reviewers for their comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Tiffany D. Joseph.

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Joseph, T.D. “My Life was Filled with Constant Anxiety”: Anti-Immigrant Discrimination, Undocumented Status, and Their Mental Health Implications for Brazilian Immigrants. Race Soc Probl 3, 170 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-011-9054-2

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Keywords

  • Immigration
  • Brazilian immigrants
  • Mental health
  • Discrimination
  • Racism