Government Relations Update

As the national debate over immigration continues to heat up, so too does the necessity for policymakers to better understand the social and emotional development and needs of immigrant children. An APA member was among those who testified at a July 15 hearing on the issue, “In the Best Interest of Our Children: Examining Our Immigration Enforcement Policy,” convened by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). Speaking on behalf of APA, Carola Suárez-Orozco, PhD, discussed the latest psychological findings regarding these children. “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,” she said.

The hearing brought together well over 100 experts, advocates and several key policymakers, including Reps. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), co-chair of the House of Representatives Mental Health Caucus; Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.); Gwen Moore (D-Wis.); Jared Polis (D-Colo.); and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).

Suárez-Orozco, an applied psychology professor and co-director of immigration studies at New York University, emphasized the need for immigration reform that includes a focus on the importance of keeping families together and enforcing laws humanely. She was joined on the expert panel by Kavitha Sreeharsha, a senior staff attorney from Legal Momentum, and two children of immigrants who have been adversely affected by recent immigration enforcement activities.

Suárez-Orozco cited her own study of 400 immigrant adolescents, which found that more than 75 percent had been separated from one or both parents for as long as six months to 10 years. Her study results suggest that the longer the parent-child separation, the more symptoms of anxiety and depression these children report.

“APA’s testimony tells a sad but important story about what our immigration laws are doing to the children of this country,” said Grijalva, after hearing Suárez-Orozco. “I thank [APA] for pursuing this issue with the rigor, honesty and scientific precision that I witnessed at the July 15 hearing. Making it difficult for American citizens to learn, to socialize and to feel welcome is not what this country should be about, and APA has made it clear just how badly we need reform.”

This hearing came on the heels of a series of meetings APA has had with key policymakers. In June, APA’s President-elect Melba Vasquez, PhD — who will be the first Latina president in the association’s 118-year history — spoke to lawmakers about her plans to establish an APA presidential task force to review the psychological literature on the experience of immigration and its impact on society.

“APA and the psychological community as a whole have distinctive expertise when it comes to highlighting and documenting the unique stresses related to acculturation and trauma that are encountered by many immigrants and their families,” said Vasquez. “It is my hope that the empirically based conclusions and recommendations of this task force will then be used to inform the development of immigration-related policy at both the state and federal level.”

APA has long supported research and policy concerning the mental health of immigrant children and opposing discrimination and racial/ethnic prejudice. As early as 1950, the association adopted its first policy opposing discrimination based on race and religion. Since that time, APA has adopted numerous policies opposing discrimination that highlight the research showing its deleterious effects, including a 2006 resolution that condemns “expressing prejudice, employing stereotypes, and engaging in discrimination in all their forms.”

After the enactment of Arizona’s new immigration enforcement law, S.B. 1070, which seeks to crack down on illegal immigration, APA issued a news release entitled, “Implicit Bias May Make Evenhanded Application of the New Immigration Law Impossible” (see article on page 18). In the release, distributed widely to the media outlets and members of Congress, Yale University social psychologist John Dovidio, PhD, said the law could lead to racial profiling because it compels Arizona’s law enforcement authorities to inquire about an individual’s immigration status during a stop, arrest or detention if they have reasonable suspicion to believe that person is in the country illegally. “Stereotyping, prejudice and biases in how people perceive and react to members of other groups often occur automatically and with limited conscious control,” Dovidio said. “These automatic processes are even more influential when people feel threatened or are under time pressure — common experiences for police officers.”

Dovidio also discussed the potential ramifications of Arizona’s new ethnic studies law (H.B. 2281), which prohibits curricula in public schools that advocate ethnic solidarity or are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group. “Having a stronger sense of group connection and identity can buffer feelings of depression and distress typically produced by perceptions of discrimination,” he said.

Dovidio also said it is important not only to recognize and value one’s heritage but “also to know that one’s group is respected by other groups and that there is common connection, identity and interdependence among the different groups in our society.”

These issues, says Vasquez, “clearly demonstrate that there is an imminent need for APA and psychologists to have a pervasive and influential voice concerning the human side of the immigration debate facing our nation.”

Read Suárez-Orozco’s full testimony online.

Benjamin D. Vonachen is senior legislative assistant in APA’s Public Interest Government Relations Office.