The research on prolonged family separation during immigration and its psychological consequences for the children and the parents had been scarce and only recently some important studies have arrived to fill this gap. For a long while, there was even a lack of research on the incidence of this phenomenon of nuclear families suffering extended separation, as data gathering was so difficult with this population. However, all the clinical anecdotal experience pointed to the detrimental effects of the parent-child separation for families, both for the adults having to leave their children behind, as for the children. Nevertheless, this was an unavoidable experience for a large number of immigrants due to the very complicated, expensive and long process of immigration through the legal channels and the great dangers and difficulties faced in crossing without documents, as much as the uncertainties of economic survival at arrival in the host country. (Arnold, 1991; Simpao, 1999, Bernald et al., 2006 ; Foner, 2009; Menjivar, 2006; Menjivar and Abrego, 2009).
We know that at present in the United States one fifth of the children are growing up in immigrant homes (Hernandez, Denton and McCartney, 2007) and, worldwide, over 214 million are immigrants or refugees (UNDP, 2009). In 2011, there were 4.7 million children learning English as a second language in the US public schools, and 79% of them were Latino. Currently, it is estimated that there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the USA. They have come facing enormous obstacles enticed by the possibilities of jobs available for them in this country that translate into a better economic survival for their families. (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2002) Travelling back to visit their children is not an option for them once here and they make the decision to come, many times, thinking erroneously that they will be able to bring their children in a shorter time that it is a reality. So they send money home for them and their caretakers. According to a survey conducted by the InterAmerican Development Bank, Latino immigrants sent 30 billion dollars to their families in their native countries in 2004 (Wall, 2004). At the same time, despite the amount of money that leaves the USA for Mexico and Central America, immigrants contribute 450 billion dollars to the USA economy per year (Wall, 2004)
As we will see in the following studies, an estimated 40% to 85% Latino immigrant children, especially those coming from Mexico and Central America have experienced a prolonged separation from their parents. That could translate into upwards of 1 million children in the school system at one time.
In the Harvard Longitudinal Immigrant student adaptation study of 383 young recent immigrants from Central America, China, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Mexico, the authors found that 85 % of the children from the selected schools were separated from one or both parents during the process of immigration. Nearly half of the sample was separated from both parents. This figure reached 80% of the cases among the Central American families and was very high as well for Haitian and Dominican families. They also experienced the longest maternal separation, with half being separated from their mother for 3 years or more. Utilizing psychological symptoms scales in relation to the different family constellations in terms of separation, the analysis of variance indicated that the children who were separated from their parents were more likely to report depressive symptoms than children who were not separated from their parents during migration. Children who were separated from both parents had a higher level of reported symptoms compared to children who were not separated. Girls who were separated from their parents were particularly likely to report depressive symptoms. The findings of this study however, did not substantiate a relationship between length of separation and psychological symptoms as it could have been expected from anecdotal and descriptive, clinical writings. ( Suárez-Orozco, Todorova, and Louie, 2002).
As the Harvard Longitudinal Immigrant Student Adaptation Study continued to gather data over the 5 years of its duration, the authors reported the relationships between the lengths of these parent-child separations and two clusters of symptoms: anxiety and depression, at two time points – shortly after the migration and then 5 years later, through analyses of quantitative data from structure interviews. They also collected qualitative data from semi-structured interviews of the parents and the children and their insights into their reunification experience as well as the observations of school personnel. As mentioned previously, during the first year of the reunification, children, who had been separated from their mothers for 4 years or longer, exhibited significantly higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms. Children who experienced medium or long term separation from their fathers (2 to 4 years or over 4 years) also reported significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression in comparison with children that had not separated or had a short separation from him. When the models for medium or long term separation from both parents were examined, they revealed that initially these children reported significantly higher levels of depression and furthermore, those students who experienced long term separation from both parents (4 years or more) experienced significantly higher levels of combined depression and anxiety symptoms. In comparing different countries of origin there were no significant differences. However, Mexican students who were separated from their mother for long periods of time were significantly more likely than their co-ethnic peers to experience combined initial depressive and anxiety symptoms. When these measurements were repeated in the 5th year of the study, no significant effects on psychological symptoms appeared, suggesting that the youth initial psychological symptoms had abated over time. (Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, Todorova, 2008)
Artico, (2003) explored the long term impact of parental separation in older Latino immigrant adolescents, trying to capture both the conscious perceptions through memories of the separation and the reunification experiences, as well as the unconscious elaborations through the use of a sandbox play activity. She concluded that the internal working models of separation and reunification were influenced by the youngster’s perception of their parent’s leaving. Two different perceptions were central: whether the child perceived the parent’s leaving as abandonment of the child, or whether they perceived it as a sacrifice the parent did to help the family. Therefore, these perceptions were very important to how successful the reunification of the parent and child was and how the youngster interacted with the environment. Another very important factor acting as an identified buffer was the youngsters’ perception of the quality of their relationship withthe substitute caregiver and whether this person provided adequate care for them. This study was qualitative in nature, using an interview format and with a sample of 7 high school students.
Descriptions on the reactions of some children left behind by a parent involve many clinical symptoms such as depression, nightmares, school failure, behavioral problems, anger, rebelliuousness and even eating problems and somatic complains (Santisteban et al., 2009; Suarez-Orozco et al., 2008; Mitrani et al., 2004).