July 15, 2010

Mental Health Needs of Immigrant Children and Families Critical in Immigration Reform, Psychologist Says

Calls for reform that would keep families intact

WASHINGTON – The immigration experience can have a profound impact on the social and emotional development of children, especially those separated from their families or facing an uncertain future, a psychologist told a congressional panel today.

“Research indicates that the emotional and sometimes physical trauma associated with shortsighted and overreaching immigration policies can have a lasting impact on children and adolescents,” Carola Suárez-Orozco, Ph.D., said in prepared remarks at an ad-hoc hearing convened by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.

Speaking on behalf of the American Psychological Association, Suárez-Orozco, urged Congress to make reforms that stress the importance of keeping families together and enforcing the laws humanely.

Suárez-Orozco, an applied psychology professor and co-director of Immigration Studies at New York University, cited her own study of 400 immigrant adolescents. She found more than 75 percent had been separated from one or both parents for a period from six months to 10 years, and the longer the parent-child separation, the greater the reported symptoms of anxiety and depression among the children.

“Unfortunately, the psychological consequences of these deportations and detentions on immediate family members and vulnerable children are often overlooked,” she said. “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.’”

Immigrant youth are the fastest-growing child population in the United States. Currently, 16 million children have at least one immigrant parent and, nationwide, approximately 5 million children have at least one undocumented parent, according to studies conducted by the Urban Institute.

Psychological consequences of deportations and detentions are well documented in other research. Suárez-Orozco referred to a 2010 Urban Institute report that indicated the vast majority of children whose parents were detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids exhibited multiple behavioral changes, including anxiety, frequent crying, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, withdrawal and anger. These symptoms were documented up to nine months following an arrest. This same report also found that, following their parents’ detention, children were more afraid of authority figures.

She urged Congress to promote the humane treatment of immigrant children and their families, including establishing detention, oversight and training standards that take into account the physical and mental health needs of detainees. Last year, more than 380,000 individuals were deported in the United States and a daily average of 32,000 people who are not U.S. citizens are detained in jails, prisons and federal facilities, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

“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," she said.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 152,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting health, education and human welfare.