In the Best Interest of Our Children:
Examining Our Immigration Enforcement Policy

OrozcoWritten statement of

Carola Suárez-Orozco, PhD
Professor, Department of Applied Psychology
Co-Director, Immigration Studies
New York University



On behalf of the 

American Psychological Association
At an ad hoc hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives

July 15, 2010

Congressman Grijalva and members of Congress, please allow me to express appreciation for the opportunity to testify on behalf of the 152,000 members and affiliates of the American Psychological Association (APA) regarding the impact of immigration enforcement activities on children and families. My name is Dr. Carola Suárez-Orozco. I am a Professor of Applied Psychology and Co-Director of Immigration Studies at New York University. My entire professional career has been dedicated to examining the effects of immigration on families and children. I have conducted many studies on the experience of immigration for children and adolescents and am the author of several books and numerous articles on the topic.

APA is the world's largest organization representing the field of psychology and has a long-standing commitment to promoting the optimal development and education of children and adolescents. Our membership includes researchers, practitioners, and educators whose work has played a pivotal role in our society's understanding of the cognitive, social, and emotional development of children.

Psychologists have a unique and important perspective to offer to the immigration discussion in several domains. We can shed light on the developmental implications for children growing up in uncertainty, in stigmatized households, and without a sense of being able to participate in the fabric of the nation in which they are being raised. We also can call attention to the unintended consequences of immigration policies for children and families, as well as vulnerable populations, including previously traumatized refugees and asylum seekers. Lastly, we can share knowledge about and advocate for the mental and behavioral health needs of immigrant families and children. APA’s commitment to these issues is exemplified by our resolution on Immigrant Children, Youth, and Families (1998).

Let me begin by briefly providing some data to help place this issue in perspective. Immigrant youth are the fastest growing child population in the U.S. Currently, 16 million children have at least one parent who is an immigrant. While today nearly 23% of youth under the age of 18 have immigrant parents, by 2030, it is projected that this will have grown to 30%. Notably, the majority of these youth are U.S. citizens.

Nationwide, approximately 5 million children currently have at least one undocumented parent, though many of these children are U.S. citizens. There are an estimated 1.7 million undocumented children, many of whom have been living in this country most of their lives and know no other homeland. They have been educated here and may speak (but barely read or write) in their parents’ native language. Growing up in American neighborhoods and attending American schools, these children in their hearts often feel themselves to be part of the American community. Complicating matters further, many children grow up in what are referred to as “mixed-status families,” in which some family members are citizens, legal residents, or in the process of regularizing their status, while others remain undocumented.

Last year, well over 380,000 individuals were deported, and over 550,000 more were stopped and sent back at the border. This trend is slated to continue as reported in the 2009 U.S. Department of Homeland Security Annual Financial Report, which states that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “ will strive to achieve a similar or higher level of removals for FY 2010.” On a daily basis, more than 32,000 people who are not U.S. citizens are detained in county jails, privately run prisons, and federal facilities. The journey of many immigrants is characterized by trauma prior to, during, and following migration, dislocations, and family separations. The detention experience can often reactivate memories of trauma among refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants and can adversely affect psychological and social well-being.

Unfortunately, the psychological consequences of these deportations and detentions on immediate family members and vulnerable children are often overlooked. A February 2010 report by the Urban Institute, entitled Facing our Future: Children in the Aftermath of Immigration Enforcement, documents the effects of these traumas on the children. The report indicates that the vast majority of children whose parents were detained in ICE raids in the workplace and in the home exhibited multiple behavioral changes in the aftermath of parental detention, including anxiety, frequent crying, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, withdrawal, and anger. Such behavioral changes were documented both two to three months after the arrest, as well as at a nine-month follow-up. Disturbingly, the children also experienced dramatic increases in housing instability and food insecurity, which are both dimensions of basic well-being.

My own research with psychologist colleagues, as well as research conducted by a number of sociologists, demonstrates that high proportions of our nation’s immigrant children are undergoing lengthy periods of separation from their parents. In a study in which I recruited 400 immigrant adolescents originating from a number of Central American nations, China, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Mexico, data indicate that more than three-quarters of the youth had been separated from one or both parents for a period of six months to 10 years. For children who had spent half of their childhood away from their biological parent, they were migrating not only to a new country but to a new family. As one Haitian teenager reported: “I didn’t know who I was going to live with or how my life was going to be. I knew of my father, but I did not know him.” Not surprisingly, there are often psychological consequences and complications associated with these long separations and the subsequent reunifications. Our data suggest that the longer the parent-child separation, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression among the children.

Our study examined the implications of family separations that were in part caused by immigration policies that slowed the process of children joining parents who had migrated ahead. These data suggest that having parents deported and abruptly separated from their children may result in negative mental health implications. Particularly challenging are cases involving “mixed status families,” where citizen children of immigrants experience the untenable position of choosing between love of parents and love of country. We know that over 100,000 citizen children have had their parents deported in the last 10 years alone. It is imperative that policymakers keep the needs of children in mind as our nation moves forward in reforming what President Obama referred to as our “broken immigration system,” particularly as it contributes to family separations. Family unification and reunification should be an important part of our immigration policy.

While awaiting federal immigration reform, a number of states and localities are developing and implementing their own laws and regulations to address the immigration crisis, many of which may pose negative psychological consequences. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, during the first three months of 2010 alone, legislators in 45 states introduced 1,180 bills and resolutions relating to immigration. Many of these initiatives have raised concerns regarding the potential for discrimination and racial profiling. APA and the psychology community have a long history of work to eliminate prejudice and discrimination in all forms. Specifically, APA adopted a resolution against Racial/Ethnic Profiling and Other Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Law and Security Enforcement Activities (2001). We are deeply concerned about problems that may arise in the implementation of such policies. Who will get asked for their legal papers? What cluster of perceptions and stereotypes will sort people into this amorphous category of suspected undocumented immigrants? The Urban Institute Report that I referred to earlier found that, disturbingly, children’s fears following parental detention were diffused to anyone in uniform. Thus, early on in immigrant children’s development, figures of authority could become not people to trust and look up to but rather people who may cause harm to their parents or themselves.

A climate of racial profiling and discrimination has negative implications for acculturation, social belongingness, and the civic engagement of the next generation of immigrant youth. Being the subject of such divisive stereotyping is likely to further inequality and lead to numerous adverse cognitive, affective, motivational, and behavioral effects that are well documented in our APA Resolution on Prejudice, Stereotypes, and Discrimination (2006) (PDF, 102KB).

I would like to provide a few recommendations to assist you as you undertake the important task of reforming our federal immigration policies. First, federal policies must consider the mental and behavioral health of immigrant children and their families. Specifically, APA urges Congress to make the necessary reforms to discourage the involuntary separation of children from their parents, families, and/or caregivers in immigration proceedings. As I previously mentioned, research indicates that the emotional and sometimes physical traumas associated with shortsighted and overreaching immigration policies can have a lasting impact on children and adolescents. Immigration enforcement policies should take into account the importance of the family unit and also the physical and emotional well-being of children and adolescents.

Next, detention policies must promote the humane treatment of immigrant children and their families. Accordingly, APA supports the Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act (S. 1594), which would establish new detention, oversight, and training standards that take into account the physical and mental health needs of detainees. Specifically, this legislation would authorize access to medical and psychological care and family-oriented facilities geared towards reducing the stress experienced by immigrant children. Finally, this bill seeks to establish criteria to better serve the unique needs of potentially vulnerable detainees, including individuals with severe mental disorders, asylum seekers, victims of torture and trafficking, families with children, non-English speakers, and those with special religious, cultural, or spiritual considerations. Such provisions aimed at safeguarding the mental and behavioral health of immigrant children and other vulnerable populations should be included in any immigration reform effort Congress undertakes.

APA’s President-elect, Melba Vasquez, PhD, who will be the first Latina president in our organization’s 118-year history, recently announced her plans to form an APA Presidential Task Force to review the psychological literature on the experience of immigration and its impact on society. APA recognizes the need for psychologists and the field of psychology to play a significant role in helping society and policymakers to better understand the human side of the immigration debate, especially as it pertains to the welfare of children and families. We look forward to sharing the work of the APA Task Force with you when its efforts are completed.

In closing, APA and the psychology community stand ready to work with Congress and all stakeholders to enact humane federal immigration reform that takes into account the mental and behavioral health needs of children and families. Thank you once again for the opportunity to testify before you today. I would be happy to respond to any questions.