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The Psychological Toll Facing Immigrants in Today's America

US Congress has the power to relieve stress for 800,000 people. Will they do it?

Oppression is stressful, and stress is dangerous.

In fact, stress is deadly.

Among marginalized peoples, the evidence is clear that discrimination-based stress is related to negative health outcomes. In terms of race-based discrimination, the scientific literature is especially clear that both overt and covert forms of racism are related to poorer mental health for Peoples of Color.

Given the heightened levels of anti-immigration sentiments permeating the United States over the past few years – with the recent decision to end the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program being an example – Peoples of Color who also happen to be immigrants or who are children of immigrants are faced with yet another burden that researchers have called “acculturative stress”: an additional type of psychological stress that are faced by immigrants and their descendants. For example, according to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2016 report “Stress in America: The Impact of Discrimination,” Hispanic people – who have been at the center of the national immigration debate and have been the target of anti-immigration rhetoric – experience the highest stress levels even compared to other marginalized social groups, possibly attesting to the added stress brought onto them by an anti-immigrant social climate.

This is not to say, however, that only Hispanic people experience acculturative stress. For instance, the fact that only 24% of eligible Koreans, 26% of eligible Filipinos, and 28% of eligible Asian Indians applied for DACA during its first two years suggest that Asian immigrants also carry such an intense level of fear and mistrust that they would not even come out of the shadows to sign up for a program that was supposed to help them.

So what is acculturative stress?

Acculturative stress is “the level of psychosocial strain experienced by immigrants and their descendants in response to the immigration-related challenges (stressors) that they encounter as they adapt to life in a new country” (Arbona, et al., 2010, pp. 2-3). Scientific research has consistently shown that immigrants (and their descendants) who experience more acculturative stress are also more likely to experience psychological distress (e.g., Thoman & Surís, 2004), lower levels of life satisfaction (e.g., Ojeda & Pina-Watson, 2013), more anxiety and depression symptoms, and are more likely to think about suicide (e.g., Hovey, 2000; Hovey & Magaña, 2000). Research also shows that specific types of acculturative stress – such as worrying about their families, being away from their families, and living in climate that has strong anti-immigrant sentiments – are especially related to psychological distress, anxiety, and depression among immigrants (e.g., Finch, Kolody, & Vega, 2000Hovey, 2000).

This is particularly true for immigrant children as well, as research shows that immigrant high school students’ experiences of discrimination (from adults and peers in their schools) are related to more depression symptoms (Tummala-Narra & Claudius, 2013). Immigrant high school students who worry about their immigration status also tend to have lower vocational or career expectations and see more barriers to college (McWhirter, Ramos, & Medina, 2013). There are also indications that the anti-immigrant climate is negatively affecting immigrant students at school, with increased tardiness or absences, more difficulty concentrating, poorer grades, more bullying, getting into fights, having recurring nightmares, eating disturbances, and feeling vague body aches being mentioned as some of the ways through which immigrant students’ acculturative stress may manifest. The children of immigrants also experience heightened stress, and many suffer with anxiety symptoms as they constantly worry about the potential deportation of their immigrant parents or their immigrant parents’ pending visa applications.

In addition to acculturative stress, which has been a form of chronic stress for immigrants, the recent decision to end DACA adds yet another serious stressor to DACA recipients – the very real threat that they might be separated from their families again. According to APA President Dr. Antonio E. Puente:

“Research shows that the displacement of children from their home countries at an early age can have long-lasting, negative consequences for their cognitive, emotional, social and physical development. The President’s decision to end the DACA program compounds the risk to their health and well-being by separating them from their families once again. Research affirms that forced parent-child separation is a traumatic event that can adversely affect the mental health of children and their families. As psychologists, we are committed to policies that keep families together.”

The immigration situation in the United States is complicated, and no one simple solution will immediately and completely rid immigrant families of all the stressors they face. Nevertheless, for a significant portion of immigrants - the approximately 800,000 young people and their families – DACA provided relief from the very heavy stress-load they were already carrying. Now that DACA has been taken away, the stress is back. Yet again, even more mental, emotional, and physical loads have been added on to people who are already facing chronic acculturative stress. The stress associated with the removal of DACA is unnecessary. And such stress is traumatic. In fact, it is dangerous; it is deadly.

The decision to end DACA came with a six-month delay which the U.S. Congress may use – hopefully – to turn DACA into law, pass the DREAM Act, or come up with something else to take away stress from the DREAMers and their families. Immigrants are resilient (e.g., Valdez, Valentine, & Padilla, 2013) – yes – but their resilience should not be taken as a license to continually subject immigrants to unnecessary stress.

Six months is a long time to face unnecessary stress, and the scientific literature is clear.

Chronic stress is dangerous; it is deadly.

The U.S. Congress has the power to relieve at least 800,000 people and their families the burden of carrying unnecessary stress. Our elected representatives have the power to stop the stress and its many negative consequences. They have the power to stop oppression.

I hope they do right.


E. J. R. David, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His work on the psychological experiences of marginalized peoples has resulted into two books, "Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups" and "Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino American Postcolonial Psychology." He has two upcoming books: "The Psychology of Oppression" (Springer Publishing) and "We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet" (State University of New York Press). Learn more about his work here or follow him on twitter.