The Society for the
Study of Social Issues



October, 2014

In recent years, the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States has increased dramatically. In the last year alone, the number doubled, with the vast majority originating from Central America. Their arrival exemplifies what we know about immigration. Large-scale movements of people happen under three sets of circumstances: (1) when a humanitarian crisis propels people to escape violence, persecution, war, or an environmental catastrophe; (2) when individuals seek to reunify with family members who migrated earlier; and (3) when people experience profound poverty and perceive few, if any, opportunities for gainful employment.  Each of these factors contributes to the current crisis.

This immigration crisis has led to a great deal of media and political attention in the United States, some of it informed by experts in fields like political science and international relations. Psychologists, although not as frequently consulted, also have much to contribute.  Psychology is the study of behavior and mental processes encompassing people’s actions, thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and reasoning.  Thus, psychologists can contribute much that is relevant to social policy.  The court case of Brown v. Board of Education, for example, was partially argued and won based on psychological research about children's attitudes about race, contributing to racial integration in public schooling. Psychological theory and research should also be utilized to address the issues of unaccompanied minors.

SPSSI invited several psychologists to explain how their research can contribute to the ongoing policy discussion about these minors.  Many of the children come from similar backgrounds and suffer similar fates if they manage to reach the U.S. (Suarez Orozco). A large number come from Honduras (Sladkova) and Guatemala (Lykes), making it important to understand these specific contexts.  We must also investigate the traumatic effects of their journeys (Brabeck) and examine the how they should be treated once they arrive in the United States (Daiute).  The "everyday violence" framework, which considers the structural and symbolic violence they experience, provides a useful way to think about what these children have endured (Dutta).  Finally, it is essential to consider the children’s developmental stage in legal hearings to determine their status (Malloy).


Carola Suarez-Orozco, PhD

Professor, Education

University of California, Los Angeles


  • How might family separation affect the unaccompanied children?
  • What kind of psycho-social treatment do they receive?
  • Are we currently using the right criteria to determine which children should be allowed to stay and which should be deported?



Jana Sladkova, PhD

Assistant Professor, Psychology

University of Massachusetts, Lowell


  • What is the economic, political, & social climate in Honduras and how does it impact children’s decisions to leave?
  • What is the journey like, with or without a smuggler?
  • What public policy solutions do you suggest?



M. Brinton Lykes, PhD

Professor, Community-Cultural Psychology

Boston College



  • What is the economic, political, & social climate in Guatemala and does it impact children’s decisions to leave?
  • What public policy solutions do you suggest?



Kalina Brabeck, PhD

Associate Professor, Mental Health Counseling

Rhode Island College



  • Do undocumented minors suffer mental health problems as a result of their experiences?
  • What public policy solutions do you suggest?



Colette Daiute, PhD

Professor, Psychology

The Graduate Center, City University of New York


  • What social and developmental challenges might the unaccompanied children face if returned to their country of origin?  If allowed to stay in the United States?
  • What public policy solutions do you suggest? 



Urmitapa Dutta, PhD

Assistant Professor, Psychology

University of Massachusetts, Lowell



  • How does the“everyday violence” framework help explain why some children flee to the US?
  • What public policy recommendations does this framework lead to?




Lindsay Malloy, PhD

Assistant Professor, Psychology

Florida International University



  • How should the unaccompanied children's legal hearings be structured?
  • How should they be questioned about their experiences?



This project was overseen by Drs. Jana Sladkova and Krystal Perkins

Research that produces nothing but books will not suffice.
                                                                                                                    - Kurt Lewin