Examining immigration holistically – while piecing it apart.

Information about immigration is everywhere, whether you welcome it or not. From hot button and emotion-evoking topics like family separation and detention to the hyperbolic promises made by Donald Trump regarding a wall between the United States and Mexico. There are many opinions and many sides. It is easy to utilize the plight of immigrants as a political bargaining chip; the United States has done so for many decades. Attitudes towards immigrants vary and may be passed down through generation, transmitted from parent to child1. But, what happens when we return to the root of this wedge issue and realize that immigrants are humans- constantly developing humans. They are children, young adults, adults, and elderly who chose to emigrate from their heritage country and establish a life in the United States. It is dangerous not to know what all immigrants face. It is also dangerous to assume every experience is the same.

Every person that settles in a new country has a different story, a different future, and different characteristics that make up their immigrant experience.  Race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexuality are just a few things that negotiate people’s experiences and identities. Let us turn to developmental psychology for a few suggestions on how to best aid the people that cultivate greatness in this country.

A holistic lens.

There are broad challenges and processes that almost all immigrants must face. Immigrants go through acculturation, which is the merging of the culture from one’s home country and their new culture2. Immigrants are oftentimes more resilient in the face of adversity3. In popular media, we have seen examples of this resilience come out of the horrors of child detention and troubles at the border or the strength of immigrant communities despite political oppression. Immigrants are strong. This isn’t to say they don’t need systematic and interpersonal support. Studies have shown that immigrant children develop better when they are near familial and parental support4. Attitudes towards immigrants also improve via inter-group friendships and exposure to immigrants5. Additionally, as mentioned above, parents have a substantial role in the way their children perceive immigrants1. If we choose to raise children in this world, why not try to educate and rid ourselves of bias? Your children will be affected, whether you realize it or not.

Piecing it apart.

While there are many broad suggestions and processes that can be applied to immigrants and their experiences as a whole, we must avoid lumping all 43.7 million first and second-generation immigrants in this country together. Developmental psychology has offered several models for examining the human experience. The two models used to study immigrant lives incorporate a multilayered and reciprocal approach4 6. That’s to say they don’t discount things like race, experiences of discrimination, gender, the neighborhood, education, and healthcare system they exist in. These models also take into account the indirect processes that affect their daily lives, such as the relationships with parents and teachers.

With these models, we should be starting to understand that with many factors and forces affecting a single person, human experience is not homogenous. So, neither is the more specific immigrant experience. This hopefully will help with the other trap we sometimes fall into: assuming all immigrants are the same. Unfortunately, the current political climate has fostered attitudes that believe immigrants are infiltrating the United States and stealing jobs, corrupting values, and even committing crimes at a higher rate (not true, obviously).  About 1.9 million immigrants come to the United States each year. It is absurd to think they all fit into one category. According to research, something called ‘context of reception’ has a great effect of immigrants’ ability to successfully integrate into their new country2. The way immigrants are received – oftentimes based on their accents, country of origin, socioeconomic status, and race – matters! So what can we do? If American is striving to be great, we must embrace, accept, and promote the developmental health of immigrants in this country. Development is life-long. We must educate ourselves on the overarching challenges that all immigrants face, then work to view each experience as unique and individual, piecing it apart.


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  1. Gniewosz, B., & Noack, P. (2015). Parental influences on adolescents’ negative attitudes toward immigrants. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 44(9), 1787-1802. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-05-0291-3
  2. Schwartz, S. J., Unger, J. B., Zamboanga, B. L., & Szapocznik, J. (2010). Rethinking the concept of acculturation: Implications for theory and research. American Psychologist, 65(4), 237–251. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019330
  3. APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration (2013). Crossroads: The psychology of immigration in the new century. Journal of Latina/O Psychology, 1(3), 133–148. https://doi.org/10.1037/lat0000001
  4. 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.
  5. Zalk, M. H. W., & Kerr, M. (2014). Developmental trajectories of prejudice and tolerance toward immigrants from early to late adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(10), 1658–1671. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-014-0164-1
  6. García Coll, C., Lamberty, G., Jenkins, R., McAdoo, H. P., Crnic, K., Wasik, B. H., & Garcia, H. V. (1996). An integrative model for the study of developmental competencies in minority children. Child Development, 67(5), 1891–1914. https://doi.org/10.2307/1131600