What Contributions Can Psychologists Make to the Immigration Discussion?

immigration psychologist

Posted August 2019 by Sean Jackson, B.A. Social Studies Education, B.S.I.T.; M.S. Counseling; 9 updates since. Reading time: 7 min. Reading level: Grade 10+. Questions on immigration discussion in psychology? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

When the last federal census was completed in 2010, a full 13 percent of the country’s total population was born in another country. According to the American Psychological Association, that means that about 40 million people in this country are foreign-born. Many more are descendants of immigrants from all corners of the globe.

As immigration to the United States continues to rise, discussions of how to manage immigration have become increasingly heated.

The public debate over immigration typically focuses on illegal immigration and the economic impacts – some legitimate and some perceived – of legal immigrants entering the country.

What gets lost, however, is how moving to a new country affects the psychological functioning of immigrants and what can and should be done to minimize those adverse effects.

This begs the question, what can psychologists bring to the table where immigration is concerned?

Psychologists Can Educate the Public About the Psychological Toll of Immigration

If we’re to have a more productive discussion about immigration in this country, there needs to be a clearer understanding of the plight that immigrants face.

There are a plethora of psychological issues that can arise from the process of immigrating and trying to acculturate in a new country, including:

  • Increased stress
  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • Employment problems
  • Racial and religious discrimination
  • Language barriers
  • Social isolation

And that’s just the start.

Left alone in a new country, immigrants must find ways to overcome these barriers on their own. Such a task would be difficult enough in one’s country of origin; it’s a much more complicated task to do so in a new and unfamiliar place where barriers based on language, religion, and other demographic features exist.

With so many mental health concerns for immigrants, psychologists have a duty to not only educate the public about the experiences immigrants face but also to help drive public policy toward embracing comprehensive and culturally competent services for immigrants.

The question is, how can this be done?

Quite simply, it is to join the conversation and assist the public at large in coming to a better understanding of common mental health problems associated with immigration.

For example, one of the primary topics of discussion at the 126th Annual Conference of the American Psychological Association in 2018 was on the effects of immigration on mental health. Topics ranging from evidence-based practices for treating immigrant youth to addressing the needs of immigrants in the context of sociopolitical hostility were featured at the conference.

These types of professional gatherings have a two-pronged effect as it pertains to the immigration discussion.

First, it’s an opportunity for psychologists to learn from experts and share their learning with others in their field, which, in turn, helps better prepare them for working with immigrant populations. More informed practice and improved mental health services for immigrants come as a result.

Secondly, media coverage of professional gatherings like this brings topics like the relationship between immigration and mental health to the forefront of the news cycle, even if for only a few days.

However, the more that psychologists can teach others about the real mental health struggles associated with immigration, the more likely it will be that the public begins to view immigration through a different lens.

Psychologists Can Help Develop Immigration Policy

One of the hot-button issues in the realm of immigration over the last two years has been the separation of children from their parents at the southern border.

Many professional organizations that represent psychologists and others in the helping professions have expressed strong disagreement with such policies.

The American Psychological Association (APA) is one such organization that is working to change the narrative and advocate for family-first immigration policies.

The APA makes their reasoning for opposing family separation very clear: keeping immigrant families together minimizes the negative psychological impacts associated with immigration.

As noted earlier, there are enough stressors involved for immigrants as it is; being forcibly separated from their loved ones only exacerbates those issues.

Even if immigrants aren’t separated from their families, the looming threat of deportation – even for immigrants that are in the United States legally – can cause significant stress.

In fact, according to the APA, fear of deportation causes so much stress that immigrants face higher instances of heart disease, anxiety, PTSD, and depression, among other conditions. Their children are more likely to have mental health issues, delayed development, and difficulties in school.

Again, by informing the public, and in this case, working with federal agencies that are responsible for developing immigration policies, psychologists can help mold policies to be more attentive to the very real mental health issues that immigrants face. Likewise, being involved in the formation of immigration policy allows for more focused interventions, like job training, to be included, the result of which is a smoother pathway for immigrants to acculturate and become an integral part of their new community.

Psychologists Can Facilitate the Process of Acculturation

Aside from the often arduous journey to get to the United States, the possibility of being denied entry or separated from one’s family, and the threat of deportation looming over their heads, immigrants also face significant barriers to becoming part of the fabric of American society.

Because immigrants can often be marginalized and exist on the periphery of society, it’s important for psychologists to lead the charge in helping immigrants adapt to their new surroundings.

This can be done in a number of ways.

First, simply providing culturally sensitive mental health services to immigrant populations can go a long way in reducing stress. With less stress, immigrants can focus more readily on the delicate balancing act of retaining their cultural identity while adopting American ideals into who they are and how they live.

Secondly, since parents and children acculturate in different ways and at different speeds, psychologists are well served by promoting family therapy for recent immigrants.

As an example, stress and tension can be caused in the family unit when older family members perceive that their children are Americanizing too fast. Conversely, children can view their parents as being out of touch and stuck in their old ways.

By airing these concerns in a culturally sensitive therapeutic environment, the family unit can be strengthened, and its members can move forward towards becoming more acculturated with the help and support of their loved ones.

Lastly, children that immigrate to the United States face additional acculturation issues in schools, where they number about 25 percent of the total population of schoolchildren.

The primary issue for immigrant children is the language barrier that exists between them and their American cohorts. Though many school districts offer an English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum for non-native English speakers, these programs are often underfunded and seek to transition students out in just three years, even though research indicates that up to seven years is needed to master a new language.

This being the case, school psychologists can endeavor to build instructional support for ESL teachers and mainstream teachers alike, that way they have the tools they need to provide adequate services to immigrant youth.

Likewise, educational psychologists can develop and promote in-school programs that provide immigrant youth with emotional support, social skills training, and mentorship, all of which can bring about speedier adaptation to their new surroundings.

While psychologists can’t solve all the problems associated with immigration, they can certainly have a significant impact on the experience of immigrants and the institutions that oversee immigration in this country. Be it advocating for improved services, helping guide the development of immigration policy, or simply offering culturally sensitive mental health services, psychologists are well positioned to have a positive influence on the immigration discussion now and in the future.

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