Immigrants are an increasingly large and diverse group in the United States, making up 12. 5 percent of the population and representing a tremendous diversity
of language, culture, religion, socioeconomic status and life
experience (see box).
But their challenges are enormous: Not only must they
adjust to a new culture and language as well as overcome
discrimination here, many come to this country after having
experienced multiple traumas, such as war and other forms of
violence in their countries of origin.
As a result, immigrants and their children can benefit greatly
from appropriate psychological insight and assistance, said
members of the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration,
which will release its report in February. At an APA 2011 Annual
Convention symposium, task force members discussed their
findings, which suggest ways to improve interventions, research
and other work on behalf of immigrants.
With the current economic downturn, it’s an especially
important time to help immigrants, said task force chair Carola
Surprising immigration facts
According to data compiled by the APA
• 23 percent of U.S. children are children of
Presidential Task Force on Immigration:
• 460 languages are spoken in the United
States, and children attending New York City
public schools alone speak a total of 150
immigrants, and by 2020, it is expected to be one
• 62 percent of our country’s immigrants speak
• Catholicism is the main religion of new
immigrants, but a growing number of people
represent evangelical Christian religions and
non-Judeo-Christian religions, such as Islam and
• Nearly a quarter of all American physicians
and science and engineering workers are foreign
born, as are 47 percent of all PhD-level scientists.
• The No. 1 reason people come to the United
States is to reunite with family members. Other
top reasons include search for work, escape
from violence and war in one’s home country,
and environmental disasters.
• 25 million people have been displaced
internationally by environmental catastrophes.
The United Nations Development Programme
predicts that by 2050, that number will be closer
to 200 million.
Suarez-Orozco, PhD, of New York University. “As in other
times in our nation’s history, today’s recession is a catalyst for
making immigration a divisive social and political issue,” she
said. As Americans seek scapegoats for job loss, for example,
“immigrants have become the target of xenophobic media
coverage, hate crimes and exclusionary political legislation.”
What may surprise many psychologists is that despite their
many challenges, most immigrants adapt well to their new
circumstances, said task force member Nadine Nakamura, PhD,
of the University of La Verne in California. However, clinicians
should watch for three external forces that can undermine
immigrants’ mental well-being: acculturative stress, trauma
and discrimination, she said. Acculturative stress is the result
of the complex challenge of navigating two cultures and
figuring out how best to live within each one — a balancing
act that often erupts in conflicts between men and women and
between generations. A common point of tension is between
parents and children who are adapting rapidly to the American
culture, Nakamura said. “Parents may feel that their children
are becoming too American too fast, and children may feel their
parents don’t understand them.”
Trauma — in the home country, on the journey over and in
the United States itself — can also leave immigrants vulnerable
and in need of services, Nakamura said. People often leave their
home countries because of wars, natural disasters and religious
or ideological persecution, for instance. In the United States,
children may see parents detained by immigration and customs
enforcement, or removed from their work place or home, she
Immigrants may also, of course, be targets of
discrimination, sending the message that they are not welcome
in their new home, which can lead to depression and anxiety.
Research — including that by task force member Michael
Zarate, PhD, of the University of Texas at El Paso, and his
students, for example — shows that prejudice toward and
fear of immigrants is alive and well, in particular toward
immigrants of color. Researchers have also shown that people
would be willing to make policy decisions based on those fears
— for example, being less willing to admit immigrants of color
than white immigrants.
When immigrants perceive such prejudice, data show they’re
less likely to use mental health services, Nakamura noted.
And if they do try to access care, they often face barriers —
an issue psychology and related fields must address, she said.
Often, there is a shortage of culturally sensitive services and
workers, but barriers to care also include practical problems
such as difficulty finding transportation or child care and
communication problems — not just language differences,
but cultural nuances that a clinician might not recognize,