The Invisible Victims of Deportation: Older Adults Who Stay Behind

By María Isabel Capiello and Eulimar Núñez

When a deportation happens, especially of a middle-age adult living with children and parents, older adults often lose not only a son or a daughter, but also a vital source of stability. Even as the elder stays in the adopted country, their circumstances change overnight: their son or daughter, who used to help with transportation, finances or even to translate at the doctor’s office or for other complicated communication is suddenly gone, often leaving behind a grandchild now in the elder’s care.
Each case is unique, and certain factors may make the transition a greater or lesser burden. But sadness, confusion and financial struggles often are present.
“Initially, they face confusion and guilt: do I follow that son or do I stay? At this stage, it is dif­ficult to make decisions because you are not self-sufficient,” says Luz Garcini, a psychologist and an affiliate fellow at Rice University in Houston, who has experience with deported Hispanic im­migrants. In cases where the older adult doesn’t have a legal status, deportation increases their anxiety: “The threat becomes real,” says Garcini.
Family a Core Value
But what such older adults really fear isn’t having to return to their home country, but segregation of the family. “A grandmother told me that what tormented her wasn’t going back: what she dread­ed most was living apart from her loved ones,” says Garcini.
It is precisely on this core value for the Hispanics—the importance of family—that deportation strikes hardest. Paradoxically, at the same time, such bonds can save these older adults.
In the United States, only 23 percent of Hispanics older than age 65 live alone, according to a 2015 survey by the U.S. Census. “I’ve never found a case where the grandparent is left completely alone. There’s always an uncle or someone that helps,” says Garcini. Contrary to a com­monly held belief, these people “don’t become a burden for the system, because they rarely use fed­eral services.”
Maria Aranda, interim executive director of the Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging at the University of Southern California, agrees: “The first thing that they do is rely on relatives, neigh­bors or friends.” This support is vital, because scammers see them as easy prey. “Their fragility opens the door to unscrupulous attorneys who make them false promises,” according to Alex Galvez, an immigration attorney in Southern California.
Often the stress takes a toll on their health, too. “They end up sick after having to cope with all those emotions,” said Garcini. According to a report from the Administration for Community Living, between 2009 and 2012, 75 percent of Hispanics older than age 65 reported having hypertension. This group is also more prone to suffer from diabetes (Hispanics are 65 percent more likely to have diagnosed diabetes than whites) and Alzheimer’s (the pre­valence of Alzheimer’s in Latinos is at least 50 percent greater than among whites).
Also, older Hispanics’ access to healthcare services is limited. The ACL study shows that 7 per­cent of older Hispanics surveyed between 2011 and 2013 admitted to not having insurance, almost twice the rate of their white peers. “Usually they do not see any doctor and, if imperative, they go to the community clinic and pay cash,” says Garcini.
An Understudied but Traumatic Situation
For older Hispanics, when the family’s or friends’ support falls short, the church is usually there to assist. Garcini explains: “Two things boost the strength of these older adults: family and faith. When the first is at risk, they turn to their church, which is a second home.”
In many cases, priests contact her or another specialist, but, Garcini says that “many are not trained to help people with severe depression.” The church’s support goes far beyond the comfort of the soul. Congregations also provide legal advice and can serve as liaisons with community clin­ics or offices, such as area agencies on aging, which are able to help; services that would ease their burden already exist.
“What we lack is an acknowledgment of this invisible drama, which hasn’t been properly stud­ied and, consequently, there’s no systematization of the ways to reach these seniors,” says Aranda, from USC’s Institute on Aging. “These older adults want help, but they don’t know how to find it. If you provide it, they take it,” she clarifies.
One Chicago model is a good example of how such integration can work. “We need to focus on advocacy. Here, Hispanics know they can go to a church where we give workshops, so that the staff can guide this person properly. Once the grandparent comes to us, we determine the needs and help them,” says Constantina Mizis, the executive director of the Latino Alzheimer’s & Memory Disorders Alliance.
Mizis leads a center that offers a daily program developed to help older Hispanics that are also caregivers of a relative with Alzheimer’s. If you add a relative’s deportation to that challenge, the impact is huge: “They really sink,” says Mizis.
That’s exactly what happened to one participant in the program: “The son was deported and she was the caregiver of her husband. We realized she was diabetic when we saw her injecting insulin during a session. She was so focused on her spouse, that she completely neglected herself. (But) after two years in the program, she has improved a lot.”
As vulnerable as they are when their relatives are forced to leave, Hispanic elders often find a way to survive, through friend networks and the church. After all, they’re well known for their resilience, solidarity and strength. 
 “They have a lifetime of overcoming traumatic events and they do the same with this: cope and move ahead as good as they can,” says Aranda.
María Isabel Capiello is a freelance journalist for Univision Communications, Inc., in Houston. Eulimar Núñez is the Health Digital editor for Univision Communications, Inc., in Miami.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the January/February 2018 issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in aging research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.