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The Psychology of Immigration

Policy proposals to improve mental health outcomes for immigrants.

Dina Birman, Ph.D., University of Miami, spoke on the psychology of immigration on September 21, 2015, at this year’s inaugural SPSSI Congressional Seminar Series, which brings notable psychologists to Capitol Hill to explain the importance of psychological research to policymakers. Before an audience of some 75 people, Birman provided a broad overview of immigration today and spoke of the contribution psychology can make in understanding processes of acculturation and developing appropriate mental health and educational interventions.

Birman’s policy recommendations were focused on alleviating needless pain imposed on immigrant populations and improving their life chances. Among her key proposals:

  • The Customs and Border Protection should close family detention facilities that imprison mothers with young children;
  • The U.S. should stop separating families by deporting parents of U.S. citizen children;
  • The U.S. should develop policies that, at a minimum, do not penalize schools that serve immigrant children;
  • Federal and State governments should support and develop culturally sensitive mental health services.
     USMAP Immigrant Faces
    Source: mtviewmirror: USMAP Immigrant Faces
 USMAP Immigrant Faces
Source: mtviewmirror: USMAP Immigrant Faces

Birman sketched the dimensions of the immigration issue today. She noted that over 40 million people living in the United States were born abroad, some 14 percent of the population. This percentage is lower—but only slightly lower—than the number reached at the previous peak immigration of 1910, and is up from a low of 4.7 percent in 1970. Immigrants tend to occupy the either end of the socio-economic spectrum; 27 percent of physicians and 32 percent of scientists are engineers are foreign-born. On the other hand, about 25 percent of immigrants are employed in low-pay service occupations and are more likely to live in poverty than the native-born.

Immigrants come to the United States for a variety of reasons: some come to reunite with their families; others to better themselves financially. The US allows some 70,000 refugees to come in annually; as well, some 30,000 asylum seekers are granted permission to stay in the US. Finally, some 11 million people are here without authorization. Those 11 million have some 4.5 million US-born children. Contrary to public impression, only fifty-two percent of these unauthorized immigrants are from Mexico. Importantly, the flow of unauthorized immigrants into the U.S. has declined since the mid 200’s.

The US spends a considerable amount of money trying to track down and detain those who are here illegally. In 2010, the US detained some 400,000 people at a cost of some $2 billion. The number of deported dropped to 316,000 in 2014, down from 617,000 the year before. In the past six years, some 100,000 children have had their parents deported, and remain here with relatives or in foster care. The decline in deportation is due to a number of factors, including the administration’s response to criticism, and its focus now on deporting convicted criminals, foreigners posing security threats, and recent unauthorized border crossers. In addition, funding cuts and increases in complexities of removal proceedings have created backlogs in the court system resulting in fewer removal decisions.

Psychology can shed light on the process of acculturation, document the psychological impact of varied circumstances that immigrants are in after entering the country, and help develop appropriate mental health and educational interventions. How to think of acculturation remains a topic of controversy; in Canada, the favored comparison is to a mosaic, with each group providing its own distinct pattern within the whole, rather than the favored American metaphor of the melting pot. Immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean are categorized in racial terms and negotiate their identity with respect to the dominant culture and ethnic minority communities.

Many immigrants live in ethnic enclaves that reduce the “costs” of migration by providing a simulacrum of home life to the immigrant. However, these enclaves may limit the immigrants’ socio-economic mobility. Of the authorized adult immigrants, some 50 percent speak English very well or exclusively; the other 50 percent speak less than “very well.” Immigrant youth, however, learn conversational English quickly.

Immigrants face varied mental health challenges. There can be acculturative stress, post-traumatic stress for refugees, and conflicts between immigrants and their children, as the younger generation adapt to life in a country that can have very different values. These problems are generally more pronounced in the second generation and for racial minorities. In fact, one well established paradox in immigrant studies is that compared to subsequent generations, first generation immigrants (i.e. those who are foreign-born) are generally healthier, achieve better grades in school, and have better mental health outcomes.

The varied educational backgrounds of today’s immigrant population mean that it is difficult to generalize about the issues they face. There are a variety of special programs set up to help immigrant children in school, including special GED, ESL, and Newcomer programs. However, the jury is still out on their effectiveness.

In the conclusion of her talks, Birman provided four policy recommendations, which she later expanded on:

  • The number of family detention facilities that incarcerate mothers with their young children has grown. These are asylum seekers who are expressing fear of return to their home countries for fear of persecution. Detainees in these facilities do not receive adequate access to medical, mental health, and legal services. The extremely negative impact of incarceration on mothers and children has been documented, and there have been allegations of sexual abuse in these facilities. In addition, they are operated by for-profit corporations, making detention very costly. A number of alternatives to incarceration can be used that do not have such negative effects, are effective, and less costly. They include being released on own recognizance or with bond; regular check-ins with immigration officials; and more intensive monitoring with electronic GPS devices.
  • Deportations of parents of U.S. citizen children have been increasing, forcing many citizen children to live with relatives or enter the foster care system. Once apprehended, parents are placed in detention facilities without having a voice in who will care for their minor children. Such traumatic family separations cause great psychological harm to citizen children, and the pain and suffering caused by such separations are unwarranted. Parents of U.S. citizens should have a pathway to citizenship that allows them to continue to care for their children.
  • Under increasing accountability pressures, public schools with large number of immigrant students are viewed in a negative light. Because it can take 5-7 years to become academically proficient in English, immigrant children lower a school’s standardized test scores. In addition, late-entering students (those who were teenagers when they arrive) are more likely to drop out of school, raising a school’s drop-out rates. As a result, many high schools are reluctant to create specialized newcomer programs for fear that they will attract immigrant students and instead steer students to GED programs. This results in immigrant youth not having access to quality public education.
  • Immigrants and refugees have a need for mental health services, but access such services at lower rates than the native-born population due to the stigma associated with mental health care prevalent in many cultures, as well as lack of clinicians who can provide services in their native language or with sensitivity to their culture. While the number of Spanish speaking clinicians is increasing, meeting this important need, there is a dearth of mental health services that can meet the needs of others in the culturally/linguistically diverse population. Mental health training programs must attend to the need to train clinicians that are culturally and multiculturally competent, able to provide services across cultures.

In conclusion, Birman noted that immigrants continue to make a great contribution to our society but experience a number of challenges as they resettle in the United States. Psychologists can make important contributions by providing needed services to these populations and by studying the impact of policies that may cause psychological harm.

For a video of this event, see youtube: