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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Leventhal, T., & Shuey, E. A. (2014). Neighborhood context and immigrant young children’s development. Developmental Psychology, 50, 1771–1787.
With the latest migrant caravan making its way through Central America, the future of policies regarding unauthorized immigrants have been at the forefront of national headlines. It is estimated that around 7,000 people have managed to cross the border from Guatemala into Mexico illegally. While some may choose to stay in Mexico and seek a form of asylum, many migrants plan to continue their journey all the way to the United States. Several ideas proposed by the Trump administration to respond to immigrants who cross the border into the United States illegally have come to light. One of the most profound plans that has been brought up regards the option of “voluntary family separations”. In other words, parents who are detained at the border with their children will be given the choice to stay detained as a family or to give their children to the foster system while they remain detained.
When potential policies arise that could have such a massive influence on thousands of families, it is important that we understand what effects the policy could have through the lens of developmental psychology. As many immigrant parents are coming to the United States in search of a better opportunity, they may opt to put their children in the foster care system. However, it is important that we note what effects this could have on their children.
Immigrants in the current caravan and others who cross the border into the United States are classified as voluntary immigrants (1). That is, they are coming to the United States in search of a better life which often corresponds with economic and job opportunities. Because they are voluntary immigrants it is important to take into account that they have chosen to come to the United States because they see the benefits. Therefore, if they are presented with the choice of staying detained as a family or sending their children to foster care it is likely to be a very challenging decision.
The immigrant paradox is a phenomenon that immigrants have positive health and developmental outcomes despite the fact that many find themselves in difficult situations. It is thought that one of the factors that contribute to the success of immigrant children is family(2). Therefore, if children are separated from their parents, they may lose the positive effect of the immigrant paradox due to the instability of the foster system. This is important because as a society, we want these children to grow up in the most positive way possible. The effects of the immigrant paradox can greatly improve society.
However, there are also negative developmental implications if families choose to stay together in these detentions centers. For example, families are isolated from US society making it much more difficult for their children to learn English. Research has shown that a mix of informal and academic settings are important when it comes to learning a new language (3). Therefore, in these detention centers children will lack this opportunity. While these families will likely not be able to stay in the US, the fact that they have crossed the border shows motivation to live here. It is possible that they may find a way for their children to come back to the United States or the children may come back when they are adults, making learning English very important.
Overall, if this idea turns into a law, immigrant parents who are detained with their children will have to face a very difficult decision. It is important that we consider what effects this proposal may have on the children developmentally for both the individual well-being of the child and the future of the United States.
- 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, 237-251.
- Marks, A. K., Ejesi, K., & García Coll, C. (2014). Understanding the U.S. immigrant paradox in childhood and adolescence. Child Development Perspectives, 8(2), 59–64
- Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M. M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
During the first quarter of 2018, 264,000 immigrants had already received permanent residence in the United States. However, obtaining legal residency does not mean that the challenges associated with immigration are over. Upon moving to the United States, many immigrants are still forced to face the challenges of poverty and discrimination(1). Recently, the Trump administration has proposed a new law that will decrease legal immigrants’ abilities to receive green cards if they have used social services in the past. Therefore, many low-income families who are hoping to receive a green card will be less likely to use these social services, therefore, among many other things, leading to increased poverty levels and worse health outcomes. If this law is to be passed, it will be developmentally very detrimental to immigrants in the United States.
In order to truly understand some of the impacts this law could have we can look at it through the lense of developmental psychology. According to classical theory of developmental psychology, this law may have several long-term impacts on the development of those who are affected. First, the political environment plays a significant role on the development of an individual. On a broad scale, the political environment trickles into and impacts the more direct aspects of a person’s life(2). For example, in the case of this proposed law, a family may choose to opt out of using necessary social services. Therefore, this could lead to greater amounts of stress and financial difficulties among these families. Second, classical theory has also indicated that racism, prejudice, and discrimination also play important roles in human development(3). In relation to political environment as previously discussed, this law is inherently discriminatory because it singles out a group of individuals with legal residence in the United States. Therefore, not only will discrimination occur on a more direct level, but it will happen on a much larger scale.
Although this law has not been passed yet, it’s proposal has already caused significant changes in the use of social services. In fact, 18 states indicated that they have seen at least a 20 percent drop in enrollment of social service programs since the proposal was announced.
In order to help this issue, we must also understand how we can help non-immigrant individuals form more positive attitudes towards immigrants. Some research has focused specifically on adolescence as a very formative time in an individual’s life when it comes to forming attitudes of immigrants. For example, one study found that friendships with immigrants during adolescence can be an important buffer of negative attitudes(4). Therefore, we should focus on improving the attitudes of adolescents for more long-term positive effects.
- The APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration. (2013). Crossroads: The Psychology of Immigration in the New Century. Journal of Latina/o Psychology, 1, 133-148. doi: 10.1037/lat0000001
- Bronfenbrenner, U. (2000). Ecological systems theory. In A. E. Kazdin & A. E. Kazdin, Encyclopedia of Psychology, Vol. 3. (pp. 129–133). Washington, DC, US; New York, NY, US: American Psychological Association.
- Coll, C. C., Lamberty, G., Jenkins, R., McAdoo, H. P., Crnic, K., Waski, B. H., & Garcia, H. V. (1996). An Integrative Model for the Study of Developmental Competencies in Minority Children. Child Development, 67, 1891-1914.
- Van Zalk, M. H. W., & Kerr, M. (2014). Developmental Trajectories of Prejudice and Tolerance Toward Immigrants from Early to Late Adolescence. J Youth Adolescence, 43, 1658-1671. doi: 10.1007/s10964-014-0164-1
I am currently a senior studying psychology and Spanish. I’m from Dover, MA, which is a small town in the Boston area. After I graduate I will be working in Human Resources with the company that I interned for this summer. It was a great experience and I look forward to continuing my work there. In the future I also plan to find a way to include Spanish into my career. I am a huge animal lover. At home I volunteer at a dog shelter and at school I help to train dogs at the Dog House.