Immigrants mental health challenges and the support they need

Immigrants constitute about 15 percent of the U.S population, which amounts to more than 325 million people.  Immigrants often migrate to the United States from many diverse backgrounds, cultures, values, beliefs, and practices.¹ While the individual reasons for migrating may vary, all immigrants share the experience and stress that comes with the immigration process, which also has long-lasting effects on mental health.¹ Not only does the immigration process include departure from the country of origin, a potential period of separation from family and familiar cultures, but also causes immigrants to be completely immersed in a new environment and forces them to navigate unfamiliar customs.¹ This experience can lead to a decline in an immigrant’s mental health status, along with bouts of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other serious mental illnesses.¹

Another similarity between immigrants during the migration process is the acculturation gap that may grow between parents and their children. ¹ Frequently, children adapt to the new culture much quicker than parents due to them being more frequently exposed to modern norms of the culture through movies, music, TV, and school. ¹This may cause a deep cultural division between parents and their children and lead to conflict in the house. ¹ For example, arguments about dating, friendships, marriage, gender roles, and career choices may ensue because of the differing understandings. ¹ For the immigrant child, it can be difficult to combine the more traditional side of their parents with the new culture’s expectations that they experience outside of their home. ¹ This also makes it difficult for immigrant children to seek help or advice because they may be surrounded by conflicting ideas, and their parents may not be aware enough of the new culture’s customs to help them. ¹

Many immigrants are living with the continuous fear of being deported and having their lives completely change again if they are discovered by the authorities to be living there undocumented. The combination of fear, stress, and trying to adapt to a long work schedule in order to support themselves and their family can cause many mental health difficulties for both parents and their children. The family’s unauthorized status is especially difficult for the children as it affects their emotional wellbeing, academic achievement, and developmental growth. ² Approximately 4.5 million U.S. citizen children live in a household where at least one member of the family has an unauthorized status. ² Studies found that children of unauthorized immigrants are more likely to report fear, sadness, anxiety, anger, abandonment and posttraumatic stress symptoms. ² There was a greater risk of developmental delay and school readiness, and children were not medically insured and were less likely to visit the doctor and be in good health. ² Even though the children may be eligible for services, the fear of revealing the family’s immigration status and possibility of deportation keeps the parents from applying for public assistance or seeking medical care for them. ² With all of the challenges that immigrants face that induce serious levels of stress, it is very important to have the right mental health support.

In order to help families in the process of immigrating, mental health services must understand the cultural differences and be more culturally sensitive. ¹ By understanding the severity and stress of the immigration process, as well as the fear of deportation, they can be better equipped to provide the best support. ¹ It is especially critical for the mental health providers to be aware of the immigrant’s background, understand the immigrant’s experience to be able to communicate with them in order to deliver the proper mental health support. ¹



  1. APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration (2013). Working with immigrant origin clients: An update for mental health professionals.
  2. Brabeck, K. M., Lykes, M. B., & Hunter, C. (2014). The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation on U.S. migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(5), 496–505.


The Plight of Crossing the Border.


Contrary to popular belief the number of immigrants crossing the border from Central America is not on the rise, instead it has relatively gone down compared to previous years1. However, what has changed is that immigrants are more likely to be part of families when crossing the border rather than single adults. This bit of information is important because when immigrant families enter the country there’s greater obligation on the U.S to protect them1. However, the reality is that in recent times under Trump’s administration this has not been the case. Immigrants crossing the US Mexico border in the last two years have faced harsh treatment as a result of the stringent immigration policies. Unfortunately, as research shows harsh immigration policies have long lasting impacts on immigrants2. More specifically, immigrants’ psychological well-being and their development is at risk due to the challenges they face under inhumane immigration policies.


Before we delve into the consequences of some of Trump’s immigration policies it’s important to highlight how immigrants have  been treated at the border so far. In May of this year 650 children were separated from their parents under the zero tolerance policy3. Adults were being processed and detained in different locations as their children. Additionally, reunification was not guaranteed in a timely manner. Images of distraught families and kids started circulating social media, creating a public outcry. However, the damage had already been done, sadly some families are still separated till this day. Separating children from their parents has negative impacts on their well-being.


Additionally, just a couple of days ago images in the media surfaced of US border agents using tear gas against migrants trying to cross the border1. The migrants had been protesting the slow pace at which US was processing their asylum claims. Tear gas was used on even young children. Tear gas has harmful physical effects such temporary blindness and difficulty breathing4. Not only does the usage of tear gas have physical health effects but also psychological implications.


Family separation and human rights abuses while crossing the border has major negative consequences on the psychological well-being of both parents and children. Parents held in detention centers experience a multitude of adverse conditions such as poor health care, racism and denied access to basic human needs such as food and water. Lastly, research shows that families that experience detention and deportation are at a high risk of children exhibiting delinquent behaviors and having mental health problems2.


Thus, it is important that clinicians and policy makers be cognizant of the struggles immigrants face when crossing the border. Research highlights that during the immigration process a whole host of mental health issues can arise such as PTSD, anxiety and depression4. For example, immigrants that were attacked with tear gas might suffer from PTSD. To successfully cater to their mental health needs immigrants’ unique position has to be acknowledged and validated.


2)Brabeck, K.M., Lykes, M.B., & Hunter, C. (2014). The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation of U.S. migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 496-505.

4)APA (2013). Working with immigrant-origin clients: An update for mental health professionals. Based on Crossroads: The Psychology of Immigration in the New Century.


Final thoughts.

If you’ve been keeping up with this blog, you know by now that immigrants are an ever-growing population in the United States. Additionally, it would be a disservice to not address the needs of immigrants and their children, authorized or not. Immigrants all have varying experiences in the United States, including practicing different religions and speaking different languages1. They also possess different education and skill levels1. Immigrants represent a high percentage of esteemed fields, such as medicine and engineering and are also highly represented in higher education1. However, some immigrants also have lower education and skill levels than the average U.S. citizen, which certain sectors of the labor force rely on1. No matter the skill or education level, immigrants play an important part in the social and economic fabric of the United States.

With engagement in the labor force, relationships with relatives, optimism, and community support, immigrants have shown that they are a resilient population1. However, there are many ways in which the United States’ policies and practices have positioned immigrant families in a state of crisis. Specifically, we are putting immigrant children in harm’s way. Immigrant children (citizen or non-citizen) are at risk for traumatic experiences, developmental issues, and overall negative experiences and effects1 2.

Many studies have shown that immigrant children (citizen or non-citizen) of unauthorized parents face consequences of things like detention and deportation2. These actions occur because of a few key pieces of legislation, such as the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA)2. For example, IIRIRA made fewer people able to become ‘legal’ and made it possible for more people to be deported. These policies from the 1990s have lasting effects.

Under the Obama administration, over 400,000 people were deported. Thankfully, these detrimental policies do not come without some relief, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides children who were brought to the United States a work permit and protection from deportation. Unfortunately, it is unknown what the future may hold for DACA recipients, or ‘Dreamers’, under this current administration. These immigrant children may be forced to live their American lives in the shadows. Children who grow up and live this way are at greater risk for behavioral and emotional problems2.

Living this way also affects how immigrant children view the United States2. When ‘immigrant’ is equated to ‘illegal’, this alters the child’s self-perception2. This also may affect the process of acculturation, which is a multifaceted, multistep process of adapting to a new culture and life1. Problems like this are also one of the leading reasons why immigrant children seek professional help1. Many times, if a parent is deported, the child is either deported with the parent or, if they are U.S.-born, they are left in the states and separated from family members2. With detention or deportation comes inadequate mental health care, which poses another risk when enduring a traumatic event2. Mixed status families are statistically already faced with adverse economic and social conditions; an event like this would just add to the already stressful and difficult life of the child, presenting a developmental concern2. Additionally, distrust is created between immigrants and those who should protect them. For example, immigrants are far less likely to report crime when they are victims.

Luckily, there are organizations whose main objective is to protect these children and families. These organizations include the Women’s Refugee Commission and First Focus. They push for a direct way to citizenship for immigrants, protection of children and their rights through all immigration processes, and the unification of families. One unique (or at least new to me) idea that these groups have is that children should be able to extend citizenship to their parents2. Currently, U.S. citizens can grant their children citizenship even if they are born abroad, but citizen-children of immigrants cannot do the same for their parents. While adult children can petition for citizenship for their parents, I think that that is too late. As my peers and I have shared in previous blogs, family unification is key in a child’s development.

If the United States wants to thrive, it must acknowledge and support our immigrants. To prepare the best outcome, this includes ensuring and trying to secure a bright future for immigrant children. With threats such as the abolishment of the 14thamendment and birthright citizenships, now is the time in which anyone that cares about the fundamental rights of children and families needs to utilize any voice they have to push for comprehensive and humane immigration reform. Immigration and its developmental effects are extremely complicated topics; they are topics I have barely scratched the surface of in these blog posts. This doesn’t mean we stop trying. As someone who has never experienced first-hand what it is like to be an immigrant in the United States, I hold myself accountable and will to continue to combat my own ignorance, engage with material on the developmental impacts of immigration, and keep learning. I hope you will, too.

  1. APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration (2013). Working with immigrant- origin clients: An update for mental health professionals.
  2. Brabeck, K. M., Lykes, M. B., & Hunter, C. (2014). The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation on U.S. migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(5), 496–505.

Examining Recommendations for the Treatment of Immigrants in the Vein of Mental Health: What helps and what hurts?

The topic of mental health can seem so expansive that we neglect to even discuss it.  Our brains, and what happens within them is a much less matter-of-fact issue than something like arthritis, or a broken bone.  Nevertheless, most of us, at some point in our lives will experience need with regards to our mental health.  Be it an occurrence of depression, anxiety, or any of the other myriad of emotional factors that play into our wellbeing, the ways in which we experience, and choose to address these things vary greatly person to person.  So, it only makes sense that our treatment should be the same: unique.  Taking a one size fits all approach to something like mental health, further neglects to acknowledge the diversity of lived experiences within the United States population.  This population continues to diversity with the increase in newcomer immigrants and their families in the United States.  The American Psychological Association reports that since the year 1990, approximately one million new immigrants have entered into the country1.  The within-group diversity amongst this population also deserves attention, as more than three quarters of immigrants arriving post 1965 are non-white, coming primarily from Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and Latin America1.  As this population continues to grow, so do their families.  This necessitates an integration of not only adult immigrant needs in the conversation about mental health but also their children.  So, what can those involved in the mental health sector of the nation do to best serve the immigrant population?

It begins with a background knowledge of the immigration experience.  While practitioners must be careful to avoid adopting a one size fits all model for treatment, there are a variety of factors that are consistent across immigrant groups simply based on the experience of entering into a new country1.  These can be summed up by the behavioral and psychological integration of home and host culture that immigrants must rectify in order to live a ‘normal’ life in the United States1.  Things like learning a new language, adopting new social behaviors, applying for jobs in an unfamiliar way and the general traumatic experiences that often result from immigration, are all paramount in understanding the unique mental health needs of the immigrant population1,2.

Once this awareness is established, it is up to the communities that immigrants are a part of to provide the adequate resources to moderate the effects of experiences that may lead to poor mental health outcomes.  Two primary examples of these communities are religious and educational centers1.  Both of these settings provide the opportunity for a formation of close-knit relationships between immigrant and native-born individuals, providing comfort and solace to those who may feel on the outskirts of society. The formation of relationships between these marginalized individuals and other community members can have a phenomenally positive impact on their mental wellbeing, an impact extending in significance beyond just the situation where the relationship exists.  For example, establishing a common faith through religion, may make isolated individuals feel as if they matter to something greater than just themselves1.  This can lead to an expansion of world-view, stimulating conversation that extends beyond the religious center.  Finding a common ground through belief, or strength through a higher power has been shown to have a significant effect in improving depressive symptoms especially through changing life circumstances.

Moving to an examination of the educational community, schools can have a profound impact on the mental health of their immigrant students.  As is highlighted above, this begins with an understanding of the way children experience immigration.  Things like prolonged family separation, potential deportation of a parent, and the inability of a parent to advocate for their child due to a lack of English fluency can have dire mental health consequences for youngsters even after they have arrived in the United States2.  In order to provide a safe and inclusive environment for immigrant youth, educators and mental health professionals within the school, must take steps to integrate a student’s family culture into the classroom.  This can be done in a variety of ways, such as bringing objects of home culture significance into classroom, acknowledging days of significance, and creating opportunities to create relationships between teachers and parents.

Through an increased understanding of, and consideration for the immigrant experience of both children and adults in the United States, mental health outcomes can be drastically improved. The most essential element is the inclusion and formation of community.  Stimulating conversation and breaking down the barriers between and within immigrant groups creates a sense of belonging many newcomers lack.  Using schools and religious organizations as tools to foster this togetherness will have lasting effects in the lives of the ever growing immigrant population.


  1. APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration (2013). Working with Immigrant- Origin clients: An update for mental health professionals.
  2. Brabeck, K. M., Lykes, M. B., & Hunter, C. (2014). The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation on U.S. Migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(5), 496–505.








Family Separations: The Case of an Undocumented Parent and their US Born Child

What happens when an undocumented parent gets separated from their US born child at the border? For Vilma Carrillo the future is unclear. Carrillo, an unauthorized immigrant from Guatemala, has been separated from her US born 11 year old daughter Yeisvi since May. Although Yeisvi was born in Georgia in 2006, her family decided to return to Guatemala in 2007 to take care of Vilma’s sick mother. After facing domestic violence at home, Carrillo decided to return to the United States again by crossing the border. At the border, Carrillo was denied asylum and her daughter has been taken into foster care indefinitely. Since her daughter is a US citizen Carrillo may be denied to ever have custody of her again because the authorities are concerned about safety issues with returning to Guatemala. Yeisvi’s foster mother says that the 11 year old cries often asking if she will be able to return to her mother.

Family separation is traumatic for children and parents alike. For children, a stable relationship with their caregiver is very important for their development. Sudden separation from their caregiver, like in the case of the Carrillo’s, can lead to disruptions in sleep and eating. When uncertainty corresponds with loss, such as how Yeisvi does not know when she will see her mother again, children may experience depression, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms (1). Despite being a US citizen, it is likely that Yeisvi will face many barriers if she is to receive mental health services. For example, it will be more difficult to diagnose Yeisvi with psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety because diagnostic tests do not take into account cultural differences in expression of the symptoms. Not only do cultural differences in expression make it harder to diagnose psychological disorders, but they also make it more difficult for clinicians to work with their clients due to a lack of understanding of other cultural norms (2).

Yeisvi is just one of many cases that demonstrates the urgency of the United States government to make policy changes in regards to family separations. Not only should policies be made to try and get rid of family separations, but stronger mental health services should be put into place for those who have and will experience this trauma. For those that argue that Vilma Carrillo should be deported back to Guatemala, it is important to consider how this could affect her daughter, a US citizen and the US as a whole.


  1. Brabeck, K.M., Lykes, M.B., & Hunter, C. (2014). The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation of U.S. migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 496-505.
  2. APA (2013). Working with immigrant-origin clients: An update for mental health professionals. Based on Crossroads: The Psychology of Immigration in the New Century.

Mental Health and the Immigrant Population

Historically, mental health has been a large taboo in U.S. society, but there is a growing number of movements and efforts to decrease this stigma1 and to assist American citizen populations with high prevalence rates of mental illness, such as those who have experienced war violence2. But what about immigrants who are experiencing issues with their mental health? Research shows that one in five people living in the U.S. identify as a first- or second-generation immigrant3. With immigrants being a substantial part of the U.S. demographic, it is critical that mental healthcare providers and mental health campaigns begin adequately addressing the unique needs of immigrant clients.


In addition to universally experienced stressors, immigrants may find themselves placed in severely stressful situations that can have a great impact on their mental health. These situations are oftentimes not circumstances an American citizen from an American origin family would experience. For example, immigrant children who experience the detainment of an unauthorized parent are at greater risk for depression and anxiety, and are overall 2.5 times more likely than children without a detained parent to have problems with their mental health4. The detained parents themselves also take severe hits to the quality of both their mental and physical health, due to the abusive tactics used in detention centers4.


While it is important to understand the uniquely severe experiences that can impact the mental health of unauthorized immigrants, it is also important to recognize the ways in which authorized immigrants experience decreases in mental health quality. For example, they may experience depression and anxiety due to feeling lonely in their new surroundings, being separated from family that remained in their country of origin, or dealing with the stress of existing in multiple cultures. These types of issues are related to the acculturation, or adaptation, process of immigrants3. However, other circumstances can also impact their mental health. For example, traumatic experiences endured during the immigration process can lead to PTSD and depression. Additionally, the inability to find employment that matches an immigrant’s expertise can cause anxiety, anger, and low self-worth3.


Many human rights advocates work tirelessly to lobby for policy changes that would improve the immigration process4, but what should be done in the mental healthcare industry to help this population? The APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration recommends clinicians use culturally sensitive diagnostic tools and treatments and recognize the role of factors such as migration experience and acculturation in each individual patients life3. Luckily, various mental healthcare providers are beginning to do just that. For example, the Northern Virginia Family Services Multicultural Center employs Arab-speaking clinicians who can communicate effectively with the Center’s Arab immigrant counseling patients. Saari Amri, one of the Center’s counselors, stresses the importance of validating patient’s acculturative stress and asking the patient about their specific experiences, rather than making assumptions based on their immigrant status5.


It is a step in the right direction that clinics such as the Northern Virginia Family Services Multicultural Center are starting to recognize and attend to the needs of their immigrant patients, but strides still need to be made in terms of culturally sensitive and competent practices being implemented in every mental health setting across the nation. It may seem daunting to implement all the actions necessary to adequately address the mental health needs of immigrant populations, but is absolutely necessary to ensure their wellbeing. Mental healthcare providers of all levels and types should take heed to the APA’s recommendations, and remain open-minded in order to provide the best treatment they can.







  1. American Mental Wellness Association. (2018). Fighting discrimination. Retrieved from
  2. World Health Organization. (2012, August 27). Risks to mental health: An overview of vulnerabilities and risk factors, 9. Retrieved from
  3. APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration. (2013). Working with immigrant-origin clients: An update for mental health professionals. American Psychological Association, 1-11.
  4. Brabek, K.M., Lykes, M. B., & Hunter, C. The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation on U.S. migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 496-505.
  5. Meyers, Laurie. (2016, January 27). Immigration’s growing impact on counseling. Retrieved from

The Immigrant Family’s Journey: How Mental Health Services Supports the Transition from Migration to Family Reunification

Immigrants and their children have become a significant segment of American society. Immigrants migrate from various countries possessing diverse backgrounds, beliefs, customs, and languages1. Families migrate for multiple reasons but all share in the stress of migration that can have lasting effects on the immigrant family. Once these families arrive, they are challenged with adapting to a new language, customs, roles, and activities1. This can result in conflict between parents and their children, as children readily adapt to the new culture which can differ from their parent’s beliefs and expectations. Children may turn to others for advice, experience divided loyalties, and confusion regarding their cultural identity1.

Another significant factor in migration is the existence of undocumented parents. In immigrant families, approximately 4.5 million of US citizen children live in families where at least one member is undocumented with an authorized status2. Since the 1990s, there has been a growing number of deportations due to stricter laws so the risk of deportation is a real threat that families may face2. This threat challenges families who are dealing with multiple socioeconomic stressors resulting in psychological difficulties1. Immigrants also face the fear of reporting abuse to authorities and the inability to access both medical and mental health services1,2. Children of these family’s risk developing emotional distress, poor academic performance, physical illness, and developmental delays2,3. If a parent is detained, this can have devastating effects on the child, leaving them without adequate childcare and the reversal of family roles as the remaining parent struggles to meet the family’s needs2.

Furthermore, another potential outcome of detainment is a parent’s difficult decision to either remain separated from their child through deportation or to have the child accompany them back to their country of origin2. Detainment itself can lead to negative effects on both the individual and family, resulting in anxiety, depression, trauma, poor school performance, and increased risk of suicide3. If the separation persists, these children can even be at risk for drug use, poor interpersonal relationships, and even delinquent behavior2,3.  The immigrant community is also impacted by a family’s risk of deportation through increased fear, unreported crime, violence due to fear of discovery, and mistrust of authorities2.

Although there have been recent efforts to improve the immigration process through advocacy groups as well as President Trump’s recent signing of an executive order putting an end to family separation, the process of detainment still negatively affects children and their families3. Mental health professionals, advocates, and researchers agree that families must be provided support to address mental health problems that can occur throughout the migration process1. This support can be challenging as immigrants may hesitate to receive services due to fear of deportation, cultural beliefs, and barriers to accessing treatment. In addition, if treatment is not culturally sensitive, it may result in lack of trust and improper treatment based on an inaccurate assessment1. Therefore, it is important that mental health professionals be knowledgeable on how to modify treatment to be more culturally sensitive in order to improve outcomes. This includes the need to understand an individual’s perspective, coping skills, prior history, and the emotional impact of migration1. Further steps can also include increasing a clinician’s self-awareness through supervision, use of professional and community resources, and utilizing culturally sensitive practices1. Mental health professionals, educators, and others who work with immigrant families must continue in their efforts to advance research, improve clinical practice, and understand the complexity of the migration process1.


  1. APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration (2013). Working with immigrant origin clients: An update for mental health professionals.
  2. Brabeck, K. M., Lykes, M. B., & Hunter, C. (2014). The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation on U.S. migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(5), 496–505.
  3. Ducharme, J. (2018). Detaining families may also cause mental health issues. Retrieved from


Complications of Current Immigrant Conditions: How could Mental Health Issues of Immigrants be Alleviated?

With the growing immigrations to the United States, the number of children of immigrants in the country have also been increasing2. Such population may face numerous mental health issues associated with the process of acculturation (changes in cultural practice and values)2 and threats such as deportation1. How should psychological consequences of immigrants under these conditions be addressed?

Family separation is a common fear especially among families of mixed-status in which at least one member is unauthorized, as they are under constant threat of deportation1. Deportation has numerous negative impacts especially for children, such as the vulnerability of unauthorized status and anxiety under deportation threat, and the detrimental psychological short- and long-term effects when deportation occurs1. Children constantly worry and fear that their parents could be taken away from them any day, displaying the ongoing anxiety and trauma. Under these kinds of conditions, immigrants affected may need considerable mental health support. While mental health institutions may be of great help, immigrants often fail to receive such vital mental resources2. They face barriers to mental health services due to cultural differences, limited access to suitable resources, and culturally insensitive clinicians2. Impacts of deportation on children are made worse by the limited availability of mental health services. How then, should immigrants having mental health issues due to threats such as deportation be helped?

Deportations are usually sudden, as families are not informed before a member is suddenly taken away1. This is a major source of the psychological effects of deportation, as the abruptness leads to families unable to see each other and be prepared prior to the event1. The sudden disappearance of parents can be traumatic and leave children in confusion1. Children are left unknown of and question what happened, and may have thoughts such as thinking the parent is hiding from them. A possible way to mitigate the effects of deportation then is to address its abruptness. If an immigrant is about to be deported, it may be better for the family to be informed timely, so they could be prepared and know what to expect. This is crucial especially since children would be losing a parent. In addition, if detention is involved, detained individuals should also be treated with better care, as detained immigrants have been found to be treated unfairly with no proper mental health resources1. Mental health services could also provide support by understanding the severity in the processes of deportation and detention. Awareness of immigrants’ backgrounds may be crucial in delivering proper mental health support for immigrants. It has been suggested that the best way to provide proper treatment is to gain understanding of cultural differences and be more culturally sensitive and responsive2. Understanding immigrants’ experiences and having good communication with them is crucial for clinicians to help immigrants2.

Due to the issues of deportation and poor mental health resources, immigrants struggle as they are unable to receive support for their mental health. However, this conflict may be alleviated by adjusting deportation procedures and have culturally sensitive services. Overall, the best way to help immigrants is to be properly informed and educated about their backgrounds, especially regarding deportation and cultural differences. By understanding their experiences, optimal accommodations can be made to provide the best mental health support. Especially for children, who face outcomes such as separation from parent, knowing their conflicts is important.

  1. Brabeck, K. M., Lykes, M. B., & Hunter, C. (2014). The psychosocial impact of detention and deportation on U.S. migrant children and families. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84(5), 496–505.
  2. APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration (2013). Working with immigrant-origin clients: An update for mental health professionals.

Are US Immigration Policies What is Best for Separated Children?

An ongoing challenge that some unauthorized parents must face when they come to the United States is losing and trying to regain custody of their children. This was the case with Araceli Ramos Bonilla, who crossed the border with her daughter Alexa in attempt to escape her abusive husband in El Salvador. Upon entering the United States, Alexa was taken into custody and put into foster care. Ramos was sent back to El Salvador and found herself in the middle of a two-year legal battle for custody of her daughter. After over a year, Ramos finally regained custody of her daughter, however, Alexa expressed that she missed her foster family a lot, as she had spent about half of her life with them. It is important to look at the case of Ramos and Alexa, as well as other similar cases, in the light of developmental psychology to understand the impact of being in a situation like this and what can be done to help improve the outcome.

The case of Ramos and Alexa not only shows the difficulty of being separated, but also the difficulties that come with being reunited. Reunification with parents after an extended period of time can cause a feeling of disorientation in the children and the necessity to rebuild family ties. The reunification process is ongoing and can take years. Research in developmental psychology has shown that at the beginning of the reunification, children tend to experience a significant amount of psychological distress, however, that distress seems to fade away over the years (1). Despite the psychological distress being seemingly short-term, it calls into question ethical concerns about whether it is worth it to put young children, like Alexa, through this difficult situation.

One way that children who are going through this situation can be helped is through the school system, namely through positive relationships with their teachers. Teacher-student relationships among immigrant youth have been linked to greater academic engagement and success (2). For immigrant children, familial connections often promote achievement in school. However, teachers can play an important role in helping students continue to succeed even if they are having changing family ties.

Another way that children who are going through can be helped is through neighborhood-based institutional resources. While research shows that family often plays a major role in child development, it also shows that neighborhood resources (such as youth centers) can also help children developmentally (3). Therefore, in an unstable family setting, it would be important for children who are undergoing separation be able to utilize these resources.

While it may seem like reunification may be the end to the challenges children face due to separation from their families, it is really the start of another set of difficulties. Therefore, United States immigration policy should take this into account when deciding the fate of the children whose parents have crossed the border with them. If the children are to be separated, it is important to try to minimize the psychological distress.


  1. Suárez-Orozco, C., Bang, H. J., & Kim, H. Y. (2011). I felt like my heart was staying behind: Psychological implications of family separations & reunifications for immigrant youth. Journal of Adolescent Research, 26, 222–257.
  2. Motti-Stefanidi, F. & Masten, A.S. (2013). School success and school engagement of immigrant children and adolescents: A risk and resilience developmental perspective. European Psychologist, 18, 126-135.
  3. Leventhal, T., & Shuey, E. A. (2014). Neighborhood context and immigrant young children’s development. Developmental Psychology, 50, 1771–1787.

Pillars of Society: Schools and Neighborhoods and their Impact on Immigrants’ Development

Immigrant children are first introduced to American culture through their schools and neighborhoods1. A major important psychological theory in developmental psychological posits that development is influenced by different environmental systems2. One of these systems is the microsystem, which includes schools and neighborhoods. Not only are immigrant children introduced to American culture through their experiences at school and in their neighbors, this also has implications for their development. Furthermore, as immigrant children navigate a new culture at school and in their neighborhood they might experience acculturative stress3. Acculturative stress is the psychological impact of adapting to a new culture. Usually stress arises when navigating a culture that is different from their original one3. However, even though schools and neighborhoods can be sources of acculturative stress, they can also provide resources that lessen the burden of adapting to a new culture.

Before addressing how schools and neighborhoods mitigate the consequences of adapting to a new culture, we need to understand the ways they  contribute to acculturative stress. In schools immigrant students are tasked with learning the beliefs, values, and language of the host society while still trying to retain their own culture’s customs3. This is might cause stress when trying to bridge these distinct cultures. Failure to adapt to the educational systems of the host society might be associated with poor school performance, for example, immigrant children are more likely to struggle in school and have poorer scores on standardized tests4. A recent report found that English-language learners from immigrant families tend to have lower test scores in math and reading when compared to non-immigrant students4.

Furthermore, studies show that immigrants usually live in poor neighborhoods that do not have access to resources that might help them successfully integrate into the receiving society5. For example, a report in 2010 found that 19.9% of immigrants compared to 13.5% of native born Americans lived in poverty6. Additionally, these immigrants were likely not have proper health insurance. Thus, when dealing with psychological distress immigrant children might not be able to access mental health services due to poverty.

However, promoting school engagement among immigrant students might help them cope with acculturative stress4. For example, educators should attempt to get to know immigrant students and their families as a way to foster a welcoming environment7. Sometimes this might prove challenging if children have been separated from their parents as a result of stepwise migration (one family member migrating first then to be joined later with other family members) 8. Educators can create an engaging environment by inviting immigrant students’ culture into the classroom7. A great way would be having students share popular stories or folktales with the class. Having a space to engage their own culture at school immigrant students might have an easier time adapting to the new culture while still maintaining their own.

Additionally, neighborhoods with high immigrant populations should aim at creating youth services that  help immigrant children engage in the receiving culture6. A good example is the YWCA in Carlisle, one of the youth programs they run is an after school homework club9. The program aims at providing an environment where students can complete their homework in an interactive manner and also get mentorship from tutors. The program is open to all students in the 1st to 5th grade. Thus, immigrant children might interact with other children in a less formal environment while also getting help with their school work. Youth services such as the YWCA after school homework club help immigrant children integrate into the receiving society and interact with other members of their community.

It is important to understand how schools and neighborhoods might create environments that make it difficult for immigrants to adapt to the receiving society’s culture. But we should also go further and investigate how these same microsystems can adapt strategies that are protective against acculturative stress. In doing so we might be able to create environments that are  supportive to immigrants.

  • Read “The Integration of Immigrants into American Society” at (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • Bronfenbrenner, U. (2000). Ecological systems theory. In A. E. Kazdin & A. E. Kazdin (Ed) (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Psychology, Vol. 3. (pp. 129–133). Washington, DC, US; New York, NY, US: American Psychological Association.
  • Motti-Stefanidi, F., & Masten, A. S. (2013). School success and school engagement of immigrant children and adolescents: A risk and resilience developmental perspective. European Psychologist, 18(2), 126–135.
  • Mitchell, C. (2017, October 25). Kids Count: Immigrants and Their Children Face Challenges on Path to Opportunity. Retrieved from
  • Leventhal, T., & Shuey, E. A. (2014). Neighborhood context and immigrant young children’s development. Developmental Psychology,50(6), 1771-1787. doi:10.1037/a0036424
  • Immigrants in the United States: A Profile of America’s Foreign-Born Population. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • (2017, January 11). Creating a Welcoming Classroom Environment. Retrieved from
  • Suárez-Orozco, C., Bang, H. J., & Kim, H. Y. (2011). I felt like my heart was staying behind: Psychological implications of family separations & reunifications for immigrant youth. Journal of Adolescent Research, 26(2), 222–257.
  • After School Homework Clubs. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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