Immigration is driving America's demographic change, demographers and others who work with immigrants and refugees reported at the APA Expert Summit on Immigration held in San Antonio in early February. Furthermore, they told an audience of nearly 300, psychologists play a critical role in ensuring that today's immigrants, especially children, have the access to education and health services that will allow them to succeed and become a successful part of the future American work force.

The summit was an initiative of APA President Gerald P. Koocher, PhD, and cosponsored by 15 psychology groups (see box), including eight APA divisions. The one-day event featured six breakout sessions and 21 poster presentations. The day's keynote speakers were demographer Donald J. Hernandez, PhD, a sociology professor at the University of Albany, of the State University of New York; psychologist and author Mary Pipher, PhD; and Carola Suarez-Orozco, PhD, co-director of Immigration Studies at New York University.

Summit co-chairs Toy Caldwell-Colbert, PhD, and Cynthia de las Fuentes, PhD, opened the conference by noting that one-fifth of the U.S. population are immigrants or children of immigrants and that today's immigrants, largely from Latin American and Asian countries, do not assimilate into American communities as easily as did earlier Eastern European immigrants.

"Assimilation and acculturation of this newer and browner wave of immigrants is progressing at a slower rate than it did for earlier European immigrants," stated de las Fuentes. "This trend in immigration has and will continue to have a significant impact on all U.S. institutions, from schools to the labor force, to media and politics, to health care."

The minority majority

In the day's first keynote address, Hernandez reported on data collected in the 2000 census portraying the rapidly approaching American minority majority as well as the effects of immigrant status on families and children. He noted that the new phenomenon of no single majority demographic group will present itself first among children.

"Children will serve as my lens for viewing the transformation that immigration is bringing to America," Hernandez said. "Today's children will soon be the adults, the parents, the workers, the voters whose experience will define what it is to become an American and to be an American during much of the 21st century."

The 2000 census data clearly demonstrate who is driving the changing demographics of America and will continue to, he noted. Today, 20 percent of children in America are members of immigrant families, and by 2030, the percentage of white children in America will drop below 50 percent.

"The new American majority will consist of a mosaic of diverse, nonwhite race and ethnic groups from around the world," Hernandez stated.

Hernandez emphasized the importance of the integration of today's immigrant children by pointing out that as the majority, the white baby boom generation, reaches retirement age and then old age, it will be increasingly dependent on an American work force made up of today's immigrant children.

Will that workforce be ready? According to census data, children of immigrant families often live below the poverty line and experience the related disadvantages in educational opportunities. Specifically, 30 percent of children living in families in which one or both of the parents emigrated from Mexico live below the poverty level, as do 29 percent of children living in families from the Dominican Republic, 40 percent of children living in Hmong families, 34 percent of children living in families from Cambodia, and 29 percent of children living in families from Afghanistan, Hernandez reported.

Newly arrived and non-English proficient parents often have trouble navigating the school systems and other community health and social service resources. Thus, bilingual children often act as interpreters for the family when interacting with the larger community. If these children retain their language of origin proficiency in addition to their new English proficiency, they will be an important economic advantage for the United States in the future global marketplace, Hernandez noted.

However, afternoon keynote speaker Carola Suarez-Orozco noted that immigration often changes the power structure within the family and can lead to a demotion of elders.

"Social demotion is psychologically difficult, especially for men," Suarez-Orozco stated.

Changing perceptions

The hometown of psychologist and best-selling author Mary Pipher, PhD, Lincoln, Neb., is a refugee resettlement community for refugees coming to the United States, thus affording Pipher the opportunity to get to know and assist newly arrived people. She wrote about the challenges they face in her 2002 book, "The Middle of Everywhere: The World's Refugees Come to Our Town" (Harcourt, 2002), which describes her experiences with refugees and the special lessons the work has taught her about trauma and recovery.

Distressed at what she called a "cultural panic attack" in America, Pipher said she regrets a growing tendency in our country to dehumanize people and speak of "the other."

"Those suggesting that asylum seekers are potential terrorists don't know the asylum seekers I know," she stated.

Pipher told her fellow psychologists that they have a critical role to play in elevating the country's attitude toward immigrants. She called on psychologists to be the "country's teachers of empathy" and to act as cultural brokers-the job of easing people into a new culture.

"We can help the people in this country think more carefully about that most urgent of moral questions-who do we call us?"

According to Pipher, psychologists who want to work with refugees and immigrants will have to step out of their traditional clinical roles and learn new skills.

"If you want to do direct work with refugees and immigrants, I encourage you to throw out the rule book," Pipher stated.

Pipher believes that the best model for working with refugees comes out of work done with post-traumatic stress disorder victims at Boston University.

Pipher describes the intervention as simple but powerful: Sit down with someone who has been traumatized and ask them what they need to feel better. "Our job has to be to offer people what the healing package is for them. Maybe it's swim passes, maybe it's English classes, maybe it's a job."

Summit co-sponsors

American Board of Professional Psychology
American Orthopsychiatric Association
APA Insurance Trust
APA Commission on Ethnic Minority Recruitment, Retention and Training
Society for Research on Child DevelopmentCommittee on Division/APA Relations
Div. 17 (Society of Counseling Psychology)
Div. 20 (Adult Development and Aging)
Div. 29 (Psychotherapy)
Div. 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women)
Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis)
Div. 42 (Independent Practice)
Div. 45 (Society for Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues)
Div. 51 (Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity)
Texas Psychological Association