No One Knows How Many People Are Deported Due to Mental Illness

Lack of access to services like Medicaid leaves undocumented people more vulnerable to encounters with law enforcement.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
November 26, 2019, 8:41pm
Photo by NurPhoto via Getty Images

One of the most harmful myths about people living with mental illness is that their mental illness makes them dangerous, and more likely to commit acts of violence against other people. Statistically speaking, this belief is patently false. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, people with serious mental illnesses only commit three to five percent of all violent crimes in the country, and are actually 10 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime themselves. Experts say this vulnerability increases even more when the people experiencing mental illness also belong to another group that receives a disproportionate amount of attention from law enforcement: undocumented immigrants.


According to a recent report by Kaiser Health News, there’s no data on the scope of deportation rates related to people with untreated mental illnesses. The report followed the story of a 21-year-old man diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder whose “untreated conditions have led to scrapes with the law,” according to his father. People with mental illness make up a disproportionate amount of our jail population—up to 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women booked in jails have a serious mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But experts say that’s because someone experiencing a mental health crisis is more likely to encounter someone in law enforcement than a healthcare provider, and the majority of people with mental illness who do spend time in jail are non-violent offenders. A 2015 study even found that people with serious mental illness were 16 times more likely to get into fatal altercations with police officers.

Because undocumented immigrants are barred from participating in Medicare, Medicaid, or accessing the Affordable Care Act network, they lack access to mental healthcare. This isn’t a niche issue: According to the KHN report, around 4.1 million people in the U.S. who would otherwise be eligible for Medicaid or ACA coverage aren’t, because even people with DACA status are barred from participating. A 2010 report from the ACLU estimated that around 15 percent of the people who do get deported from the U.S. annually have some kind of “mental disability.” This lack of access is a huge concern for people already living in fear of run-ins with local police or ICE. And this fear takes a health toll of its own: In 2018, an undocumented woman told VICE about the anxiety, sleep deprevation, weight loss and appetite changes she experienced in the wake of Trump’s decision to end DACA.

On a wider scale, studies have shown deportation-related stress put undocumented women at risk for heart disease, and immigrant families who avoid routine activities and interactions with people like healthcare providers, teachers, or police officers out of fear of being deported are more likely to report “serious psychological distress” as a result. And an October report from the United States Commission on Civil Rights on family separation and detention policies described the impact as “widespread, long-term, and perhaps irreversible physical, mental, and emotional childhood trauma.” This is in addition to any psychological impact of actually immigrating to the U.S., according to a February report by the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network. The mental health advocates who spoke with KHN said that because people with untreated mental illness are more likely to find themselves “cycling in and out of the criminal justice system,” it feels unlikely that this crisis will dissipate without major changes in healthcare access for undocumented people living in the U.S. Unfortunately for those who have already been deported, it’s already too late. But for the millions of people still experiencing pervasive fear, anxiety, stress, and depression, relief in the form of accessible healthcare (or humane immigration policies) can’t come fast enough.

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