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Event Report: APA Congressional Briefing on Immigration

On May 9, the American Psychological Association (APA) held a congressional briefing to present the findings of a new report by the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration titled “Crossroads: The Psychology of Immigration in the New Century”. The event started with an opening statement by Melba Vasquez, the Past President of APA. She underlined the importance of studying immigration in order to address the widespread negative views of immigration in the media and to challenge commonly believed myths on immigration. 

The first speaker was Dr. Carola Suárez-Orozco who began by providing background information on immigration in the US. She informed the audience that 38.5 million US citizens are foreign born, most of whom are legal. Most immigrants are from Latin America and there is large amount of religious diversity among immigrants, with Catholicism and evangelicalism being most common. She then addressed the myth that immigrants are not learning English. According to their studies, language assimilation occurs very quickly. Children learn conversational English rapidly (within 1-2 years) and their native language usually lost by the 3rd generation. 

She then addressed why immigrants tend to come to the US. The main reason, she said was “where capital flows, immigrants tend to follow”.  Other incentives included war and environmental disasters in their country of origin as well as the desire to bring an entire family if one family members moves to the US. From there she began to speak specifically about the children of immigrants, saying that they tend to be bilingual, outperform many of their peers, and have a high level of trust in US civil institutions. She also detailed some of the dramatic harsh psychological affects a child can experience when their parents are deported. 

The Second Speaker, Dr. Dina Birman, spoke specifically about issues of education. She spoke about the “Immigration Paradox”, that 1st generation immigrant children consistently outperform 2nd and 3rd generation children in both physical health and academic achievement.  In fact, many 1st generation immigrants eventually enter the knowledge intensive economy, with careers, for example, as scientists or doctors.  One of the theories behind this finding is the “immigrant bargain”, which proposes that since parents sacrifice to bring their kids to this country they expect their child to achieve. They have found, however, that older 1st generation children, in addition to 2nd and 3rd generation children, sometimes show declines in academic performance. Speculations for why this happens include the difficulty of having a language barrier, interrupted educations (moving from one educational system, or lack thereof, to the a different educational system), fear of deportation and psychological issues common in undocumented students, and immigrating at an older age which makes it difficult or impossible to graduate high school before they exceed the cut off age. 

Dr. Birman then spoke about bilingual education, emphasizing the benefits of bilingualism. Bilingualism can help in school and literacy due to the “Transfer Phenomenon”, which suggests that language skills transfer across languages. An issue she pointed out is that the educational system does not prioritize immigrant students. There are disincentives for schools to have immigrants because they believe that immigrants lower test scores and raise dropout rates. Schools are also ill-equipped to address and diagnose immigrants learning differences and to provide testing in Spanish. Dr. Birman advised that schools should have special programs be devised for immigrants, provide more credits for students so they can graduate before they exceed the cut off age, implement more bilingual support, remove disincentives from having immigrant students, and better teach teachers how to work with immigrants. 

The 3rd Speaker, Usha Tummala-Narra, discussed the effects of acculturation, discrimination, and interpersonal violence on immigrants’ mental health.  She started by stating that there is often an under utilization of mental health services among 1st generation immigrants.  According to recent statistics there is a rising rate of suicide among immigrants groups. The immigrant groups most vulnerable to mental health issues include visible minorities (people of color), LGBTs, people with physical disabilities, victims of trafficking, and undocumented immigrants.  

Dr. Tummala-Narra then pointed out some of the obstacles to providing proper mental health treatment to immigrants. Sociocultural barriers include how some immigrants may describe and experience something like depression differently, or there may be a social stigma attached to seeking treatment. Many immigrants also have a lack of knowledge of existing resources and face language barriers that can lead to over and under diagnoses. Dr. Tummala-Narra suggests that clinicians receive training to better understand cultural contexts and biases, that there should be more evidence based research, and to go beyond current clinical services to promote community based initiatives. 

After the presentations Dr. Vasquez made a final comment concluding that immigrants make the US strong and resilient and pointed out that all three of the event’s presenters were first generation immigrants, who have prospered and made an exceptional contribution to society. 

The full report from the APA task force can be found here.  

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