Immigrants are an increasingly large and diverse group in the United States, making up 12.5 percent of the population and representing a tremendous diversity of language, culture, religion, socioeconomic status and life experience (see Surprising immigration facts).

But their challenges are enormous: Not only must they adjust to a new culture and language as well as overcome discrimination here, many come to this country after having experienced multiple traumas, such as war and other forms of violence in their countries of origin.

As a result, immigrants and their children can benefit greatly from appropriate psychological insight and assistance, said members of the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration, which will release its report in February. At an APA 2011 Annual Convention symposium, task force members discussed their findings, which suggest ways to improve interventions, research and other work on behalf of immigrants.

With the current economic downturn, it's an especially important time to help immigrants, said task force chair Carola Suarez-Orozco, PhD, of New York University. "As in other times in our nation's history, today's recession is a catalyst for making immigration a divisive social and political issue," she said. As Americans seek scapegoats for job loss, for example, "immigrants have become the target of xenophobic media coverage, hate crimes and exclusionary political legislation."

Clinical issues

What may surprise many psychologists is that despite their many challenges, most immigrants adapt well to their new circumstances, said task force member Nadine Nakamura, PhD, of the University of La Verne in California. However, clinicians should watch for three external forces that can undermine immigrants' mental well-being: acculturative stress, trauma and discrimination, she said. Acculturative stress is the result of the complex challenge of navigating two cultures and figuring out how best to live within each one—a balancing act that often erupts in conflicts between men and women and between generations. A common point of tension is between parents and children who are adapting rapidly to the American culture, Nakamura said. "Parents may feel that their children are becoming too American too fast, and children may feel their parents don't understand them."

Trauma—in the home country, on the journey over and in the United States itself—can also leave immigrants vulnerable and in need of services, Nakamura said. People often leave their home countries because of wars, natural disasters and religious or ideological persecution, for instance. In the United States, children may see parents detained by immigration and customs enforcement, or removed from their work place or home, she said.

Immigrants may also, of course, be targets of discrimination, sending the message that they are not welcome in their new home, which can lead to depression and anxiety. Research—including that by task force member Michael Zarate, PhD, of the University of Texas at El Paso, and his students, for example—shows that prejudice toward and fear of immigrants is alive and well, in particular toward immigrants of color. Researchers have also shown that people would be willing to make policy decisions based on those fears—for example, being less willing to admit immigrants of color than white immigrants.

When immigrants perceive such prejudice, data show they're less likely to use mental health services, Nakamura noted. And if they do try to access care, they often face barriers—an issue psychology and related fields must address, she said. Often, there is a shortage of culturally sensitive services and workers, but barriers to care also include practical problems such as difficulty finding transportation or child care and communication problems—not just language differences, but cultural nuances that a clinician might not recognize, Nakamura said.

Psychologists should be especially alert to the needs of the 4.5 million children who have unauthorized parents, Suarez-Orozco added. Because these parents may fear getting caught by authorities, their children don't have reliable access to services and as a result, face negative developmental, cognitive and health outcomes, Suarez-Orozco said. "That is something we should all be thinking about."

School and education issues

Besides the challenge of navigating two cultures, children of immigrants—now about a quarter of all school-age children in the United States—face challenges specific to the school environment, said task force member Usha Tummala-Narra, PhD, of Boston College.

Language proficiency undergirds young people's ability to succeed in school, yet language training is often insufficient to meet their needs, Tummala-Narra said. On the most basic level, children are often expected to transition out of second-language programs within three years. "But we know from research that academic or languages skills can't be taught or internalized well for at least four to seven years," she said.

 What's more, English-language teachers tend to receive little support from colleagues and administration, and school personnel overall are often ill-equipped to deal appropriately with these youngsters' religious, cultural and linguistic diversity, Tummala-Narra added.

First- and second-generation children may also face significant social challenges, said Tummala-Narra, who is conducting a longitudinal study of immigrant high school students. Besides facing discrimination and social isolation at school, they tend to live in neighborhoods segregated from the larger communities they live in, adding to their sense of "otherness," she said.

One way to help these kids is to build ongoing emotional and instructional support for students and families, she said. Another is developing good mentoring programs—something that her work and research in general suggest may greatly benefit these young people.

In focus groups she is running as part of her study, for instance, "the students repeatedly told me and my students that they'd like to see these groups continue," she said, telling the researchers they otherwise didn't have a chance to talk with people older than themselves who understood their situation and could help them navigate the system.

"They wanted the older immigrants, the college and graduate students, to come back and help," she said.

More research needed

Good research could help improve the quality of interventions immigrants receive, but it remains underdeveloped as well, said task force member Dina Birman, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Researchers fail to cite each other's work and use different terms for the same constructs, she said, which results in a lack of integration of findings and of accumulated knowledge in the field.

In addition, studies of immigration and of attitudes toward immigrants often use convenience samples such as college students, and they're more often cross-sectional than longitudinal, providing snapshots rather than a more comprehensive picture of the complex acculturation process, Birman noted. Many studies also use proxy measures to describe acculturation, such as the length of time a person has been in the country and his or her immigration status. But these, too, offer only a shallow picture of immigrants' experiences. A better way to capture them would be to measure acculturation in ways that allow researchers to examine the different dimensions of the immigrant experience that unfold over time, such as language, behavior, identity and values, for example, she said.

Given the complexity of these issues, the task force thinks psychologists should take an ecological perspective on new Americans' acculturative development, employing the perspective of late Cornell University psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, PhD. His model states that you should not study a child without looking at his or her context, including school, home and peers.

"We're different people depending on the different microsystem or context we're in," said Birman. "For immigrants, that's even more complex, because the microsystems that immigrants occupy differ culturally."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.