By: Maria Monteros
In high school, Yenin Echeverria joined advanced placement classes, advanced honors and dual enrollment programs— all in preparation for law school.
“I was smart like everyone else. I was supposed to go to college like everyone else,” said Echeverria, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient whose family moved to Boston from Honduras when she was 2-years-old. “I thought I just fit in up until that point.”
When Echeverria, applied for college in 2016, the fear of getting deported before finishing her law degree caused Echevarria to change career goals entirely— then came the threat of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in Tennessee where she and her family now live.
“I don’t think many students actually realize what it’s like to wake up in the morning and just pray that you go to school safely and make it back home,” said Echeverria, now a senior communication studies major at Trevecca Nazarene University. “In the political climate that we live in, you’re not sure when you could get pulled over.”
Echeverria is one of 7,710 DACA recipients in Tennessee and 652,880 across the United States, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2019. According to Trevecca President Dan Boone, around 100 DACA students are enrolled at Trevecca.
While DACA recipients are ethnically diverse, about 94 percent were born in Latin American countries, a 2017 analysis from Pew Research Center indicates. Under states with prevalent threats of deportation and social stigma, researchers from Columbia University in 2018 suggested that Latino immigrants struggle mentally due to isolation, stress and anxiety.
Latinos in states with hostile immigration policies were more likely to report poor mental health than non-Latinos and Latinos in states with less restrictive approaches, according to the same study.
US lawmakers in 2018 enacted a total of 397 laws and resolutions, a report from the National Conference of State Legislatures indicated.
“One of the biggest fears that I’ve heard is not so much that the whole family’s going to be taken away but that the whole family’s going to be taken apart,” said Laila Ashkazari, a Nashville-based bilingual mental health counselor at Family and Children’s Service, whose clients are often asylum seekers and first-generation immigrants. “They’ll be separated.”
Most students, Ashkazari said, understand the struggle their parents went through to get them to the US, which forces some students to “grow up faster” and set high academic goals.
Ashkazari said the same unease rings true to most DACA students. That all their accomplishments could “go down the toilet” overnight, she said.
So why does the need to perform well persist among DACA students?
“To prove everyone wrong,” Ashkazari said. “To beat the stereotypes that you can’t do better; that you can’t become more than just a laborer or someone that cleans the house or does the lawn or works in a restaurant.”
Mental Health isn’t openly discussed
The symptoms of poor mental health aren’t always big red flags, Ashkazari said. The signs could be anything between both sides of the extremes: Some students can become isolative while others could become irritable, she said.
In addition, most Latino households don’t openly discuss mental health or consider it a “woman’s problem,” she said.
Though universities offer free mental health counseling, Ashkazari said most don’t have the capacity to handle the conditions common to Latino immigrants, which could include posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or major depression.
“College and universities are not equipped to handle any kind of baseline trauma,” she said, adding that college institutions don’t have the budget to hire a staff that specializes in areas outside of general anxiety, depression and identity crisis common to college students.
Surveys show only 33 percent of Latino adults with mental health problems receive professional help every year compared to the 43 percent national average, according to a 2019 analysis from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA).
The lack of access to mental health treatment and the language barrier between health care and the Latino community is what drew Jairo Robles, 29, into the field.
“Our community experiences a lot of trauma,” he said. “We’ve all seen somebody get deported or know somebody that has.”
Robles received his undergraduate degree psychology at Trevecca as a DACA student in 2018 before getting married and receiving his green card on the same year. He is currently a graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University studying clinical mental health.
Even as an aspiring counselor, Robles said his parents often label people with mental health problems as “crazy.”
“Don’t air out your laundry. Keep it at home,” he said, describing his upbringing. “Being open about going to therapy has really helped them start to accept the fact that people have mental health issues that they need to address.”
Finding help on your own
Most parents of DACA recipients don’t understand the law and the American education system, said 25-year-old Jazmin Ramirez, who came to the US from Mexico at age 7.
As a first-generation college student, figuring out how to acquire a diploma fell on her shoulders, she said.
When she began looking into colleges, Ramirez soon realized she was not eligible for in-state tuition and other educational opportunities.
On her first potential paid internship at a local non-profit, Ramirez went through three rounds of interviews before having to turn down the offer after being asked for her Social Security number.
“Having worked so hard for that internship and then having to turn it down was really crushing,” she said. “That’s when it really hit me what it would mean for me to be an undocumented student.”
Once her high school graduation came, she didn’t have a university to go to, causing her to take a year off. That’s when a scholarship with Equal Chance for Education and Trevecca came, she said.
There’s no room for failure
For Echeverria, bad grades were “never an option.” The weight rising out of their situation often fell on her shoulders, she said.
“My parents always stressed the fact that you’re here to do better and to be better,” she said. “A’s have always been the expectation.”
In college, Echeverria has been the commuter council president and a peer mentor. After school, she works part-time in a retail store, she said.
Based on her definition, Echeverria continues to check off her list of what success would mean.
This May, Echeverria will be finishing her undergraduate degree a semester earlier. After graduation, she plans on preparing for graduate school in hopes of being a speech pathologist.
“For people my age, school is often about having fun, about trying new things— getting to experience the college life,” she said. “But for me, it’s always just been making sure you get good grades.”
Currently, Echeverria isn’t seeing a counselor. She mostly confides to friends and university staff she shares a close relationship with, she said.
“We appreciate people listening to us and all that,” she said about mental health resources in universities. “But if you’re not helping us advocate for change, it’s just pointless for you to just listen.”