Volume 51   Number 4 Fall 2018

Immigrant Justice Interest Group

Edited by Fabricio Balcazar, University of Illinois at ChicagoFabricio.jpg

During the APA conference in San Francisco, I was invited to represent our interest group at a symposium entitled “Exploring the psychological and social harm to immigrant youth and families in detention facilities.” The symposium was very well received as it brought diverse expertise into the discussion of the adverse impact of immigration policies. I want to share a brief summary of the presentations and present some actions psychological organizations are taking and subsequent policy recommendations. 

The first presenter was Edward Ameen, who works at the American Psychological Association (he spoke about his previous research and not as a representative of the APA). His presentation was titled “Comparing Contemporary Public and Professional Discourses about Immigration.” One of the themes in Eddy’s presentation was his comparison of public and professional discourse about immigration, which he conducted with Rachel Backer from the Immigrant Children’s Affirmative Network while studying at the University of Miami.  They selected the top two US newspapers with the highest readership (USA Today and the Wall Street Journal), the top two television news stations with the highest viewership (Fox News and CNN) and all peer-reviewed English-language psychological journals. They reviewed a total of 1,886 public articles and transcripts and 209 professional articles published between 1-1-09 and 10-31-09. In the analysis, they found that psychology and the public media largely share different views about immigration. In the psychological literature, the most recurring topics were acculturation, identity, well-being, human rights and issues particular to subgroups, like adjusting and coping with the host community. All media sources tended to focus on the legal and political status of immigrants and their economic impact. They found that there is in the media high concern about how the immigration policies affect the financial conditions of native-born people.  Over 80% of Fox News coverage of immigrants related to criminal, legal and political topics, more than any other public source. The authors concluded that psychologists are not addressing public opinion in their research and the media is not translating and using psychological research. Instead, the media outlets are focusing on legal, security, and economic issues.

Lucia Melano, Wright Institute, Berkeley, CA, talked about the need to “Address the psychological harm experienced by individuals in detention centers.” The purpose of her presentation was to share an overview of an APA interdivisional project proposal currently under review (developed in collaboration with 7 APA Divisions – including SCRA— and the Society for Qualitative Inquiry in Psychology) that will focus on the assessment of detention institutions, including the conditions and psychological harm experienced by individuals in detention facilities.  The project proposes to address several areas, including: Understanding the lived experience of children, mothers, and asylum seekers in the U.S., and that of the individuals who have been returned to their country; developing a culturally and linguistically relevant questionnaire to begin documenting the oral history of their experiences; documenting forms of resistance, solidarity and mobilizing on behalf of immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers; organizing Community Ethics Panels to support professionals in the ethical challenges they face in providing services and supports to target populations and groups; and informing best practices and models of appropriate care to address the trauma experienced by individuals in detention centers, among others.   

Claudia Atuña, talked about “Elements of trauma, implications and impact on immigrant families and communities.” Claudia has conducted more than 700 psychological evaluations of asylum seekers and immigrant detainees. She is based in Seattle, WA and is a frequent visitor to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, which is the second largest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in the country. This facility has experienced a significant increase in its capacity (more than tripled since it was first built) and the average length of time detainees wait for court hearings to decide their fates has increased dramatically in recent years, from one month to four months or more. The increased wait times have also brought complaints from detainees about the quality of food and care they receive inside. For instance, individuals with mental illness only receive 15 minutes of therapy with a social worker or nurse regardless of diagnosis.

With regards to the negative impact on children and families experiencing the fear of deportation, Claudia reported the several findings from current research, including: Significant behavioral changes in children -- problems sleeping, headaches, stomachaches, depression and anxiety negatively affecting school performance; children feeling increased fear and uncertainty about potentially losing their parents to deportation or having to return to their parent’s native countries; and families are having to make changes in their daily lives and routines in response to fear of deportation. She pointed out that some parents are arranging alternative plans for their children’s care in case they are detained or deported while others are uncertain and fearful about what would happen to their children if the plan they put in place is not executed. She also added that many physicians, teachers, and social service providers feel stressed as to how to advise parents about they can do. Overall, there is growing concern about the long-term effects of this toxic stress.

Finally, Claudia pointed out that there is no right to an appointed attorney in immigration court. If the person cannot afford a private attorney, they are forced to represent themselves, which typically results in losing the case. For instance, 92% of the individuals at the Detention Center in Tacoma were unrepresented. Claudia also pointed out that undocumented immigrants should know their rights; they should create a family safety plan; keep informed of developments in immigration policy; beware of scams from unscrupulous people promising to solve their case; and ideally, hire a private attorney to ensure representation in court.  She offered several Legal Resources:

Finally, I talked about “Facing the challenges of U.S. Immigration: Policies and Practices.” The purpose of my presentation was to present an overview of what psychology groups are doing to address current U.S. immigration policies and practices; and I summarized some of the key points introduced in the two immigration-related policy statements produced by SCRA members.  On July 3rd, 2018, a group of 14 APA divisions, 3 National Psychological Associations and the APA Committee of International Relations in Psychology released a public statement expressing their “strong stand against any policy that criminalizes parents fleeing poverty, violence and political persecution in search of a safe and better life for their children.

This statement argued that current U.S. immigration policies and practices are likely to result in irreparable and life-long physical and psychological harm to both parents and children and that the “zero-tolerance policy” goes contrary to the moral, humane, and democratic principles and values upon which this country was founded. The signatories of this public statement urged elected officials to support the abolition of all policies and practices that harm immigrants, asylum-seekers, and families; to develop a plan and implementation for expeditious reunification of families affected by the “zero tolerance” policy; and to provide reparations in the form of rehabilitation (e.g., psychological services) for the thousands of family members separated. The members of the signatory organizations offered to assist by providing culturally informed psychological and mental health services, culturally informed organizational consultation, staff training, and advocacy to promote the safety, well-being, and rights of asylum-seekers and immigrants.

With regards to the Division 27 Policy Statement on the Effects of Deportation and Forced Separation, SCRA members (see Langhout et al., 2018) proposed the following recommendations: Immigration reform should take into account what is in the best interest of U.S. born children -- in other words, keep families together; families should NOT be separated given the demonstrated negative impact on children, other family members, and the broader community; local jurisdictions should declare themselves as “sanctuary cities” to enhance the protection of undocumented immigrants; and local school districts should be encouraged to develop protocols for responding to ICE activity near schools and educating school personnel on the effects of immigration enforcement on families and students, among others.

Finally, with regards to the Statement on the Incarceration of Undocumented Immigrant Families and alternatives to Detention (ATD) in particular, SCRA members (see Chicco et al., 2015) made the following recommendations: (1) In many instances detained migrants may be released on their own recognizance or on a bond set by an immigration official; (2) a reasonable bond amount may allow families to post the bond and be released while pursuing requests for protection in immigration court; (3) ATD may also include release subject to specific reporting conditions, including a regular check-in time with immigration (in person or by phone, weekly, monthly or in another frequency); (4) monitoring ATD programs have been widely reported as effective; (5) treating migrants with dignity and respect, as well as providing them with clear and timely information increases cooperation and compliance; (6) Global Positioning Systems (electronic monitoring like ankle bracelets) should only be used sparingly if at all and as an alternative to detention; (7) the Department of Homeland Security should STOP the current practice of family detention and promote reasonable and humane alternatives to incarceration that guarantee the human rights of migrant families

To conclude, this was an energizing symposium which generated a great deal of interest and multiple calls for action. Several audience members offered their contact information and were interested in the volunteer program that APA is organizing to training members in the procedures for conducting psychological evaluations for individuals applying for refugee status and their families.  Members of our committee also met in San Francisco and we are starting to plan activities for the near future. Anyone interested in joining the group should contact Jean Hill at



Chicco, J., Esparza, P., Lykes, M.B., Balcazar, F.E., and Ferreira, K. (2015). Statement on the Incarceration of Undocumented Immigrant Families

Langhout, R.D., Buckingham, S.L., Oberoi, A,K., Chávez, N.R., Rusch, D., Esposito, F., & Suarez-Balcazar, Y. (2018). Statement on the Effects of Deportation and Forced Separation on Immigrants, their Families, and Communities

Joint Public Statement from Psychology Groups on U.S. Immigration Policies and Practices (July 3rd, 2018).

Migration Policy Institute (2018, May). Revving up the Deportation Machinery: Enforcement and Pushback under Trump. Retrieved from