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.
- APA Presidential Taskforce on Immigration (2013). Working with immigrant- origin clients: An update for mental health professionals.
- 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. https://doi.org/10.1037/ort0000011