Psychology of Immigration 101

Psychology of Immigration 101


Executive Summary (PDF, 409KB)

Within Psychology of Immigration 101, the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration and Public Interest Directorate have developed information and various tools for mental health professionals, educators, advocates, service providers and members of the public on the mental health needs of immigrants in the United States.

Psychology has a unique and important perspective to offer on this topic. Specifically, psychology advances scientific research, promotes the delivery of culturally and linguistically appropriate services, educates and trains psychologists and others who work with immigrants, and informs the development of sound public policy. The Presidential Task Force developed a report based on the most recent research that addresses the psychological factors related to the experience of immigration. The report gives particular attention to the mental and behavioral health needs of immigrants across the lifespan and the effects of acculturation, prejudice/discrimination, and immigration policy on individuals, families and society.

With this mission, the report’s three major goals are to:

(a) raise awareness about this growing (but poorly understood) population
(b) derive evidence-informed recommendations for the provision of mental health services to immigrants
(c) make recommendations to improve education, research, practice and policy affecting immigrants of all ages and backgrounds.

The tools and resources that are included in Psychology of Immigration 101, such as the Executive Summary, are based on the content of the Presidential Task Force Report on Immigration. Please check back again and often as new tools and resources will be added continuously.

Executive Summary (PDF, 409KB)
Who are immigrants?
a. Demographics/diversity
  • Currently, 39.9 million people (12.9 percent of the population) living in the United States are foreign-born.
  • As the foreign-born population has grown over the last few decades, so has the population of their children. Another 33 million individuals (11 percent) are native-born with at least one foreign-born parent.
  • Today, one in five people living in the United States is a first-generation immigrant (born abroad to foreign-born parents) or a second-generation immigrant (born in the United States to a foreign-born parent or parents).
  • All second-generation immigrants are U.S. citizens as mandated by the 14th Amendment.
  • Thirty percent of young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 are first- or second-generation immigrants.
  • Immigrant-origin children have become the fastest growing segment of the child population with one in three children under 18 projected to be the child of an immigrant by 2020.

Immigrants to the United States come from all over the world. During the previous great wave of migration, most new arrivals originated from Europe. But in the mid-1960s, immigrants began to contribute to the great diversification of our nation.

Since 1965, more than three-quarters of new immigrants arriving in the United States are "of color" with origins in Latin America, Asia, the Caribbean and Africa1. The largest group of immigrants comes from Latin America, a racially and ethnically complex region consisting of indigenous origin, White European origin, African origin and mestizo (or mixed origin) populations2. Asians account for 27.8 percent of the foreign born and there has been a very rapid growth in immigration from Africa since 1960, from 35,355 to 1.4 million3, with most of that growth occurring in the last decade.

The four states with the largest numbers of immigrants (California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Texas) have already become "majority/minority" (less than 50 percent White) states. In the past 2 decades, a growing number of states with no previous immigrant population have seen very high rates of new migration. Southern states have experienced the most dramatic change in immigrant population compared to other states.

Immigrants arrive in the United States with varied levels of education but tend to be overrepresented at both the highest and lowest ends of the educational and skill continuum. They comprise a quarter of all U.S. physicians, 24 percent of the nation’s science and engineering workers with a bachelor’s degree, and 47 percent of scientists with doctorates. It is likely these percentages will be higher when the 2010 Census data are released.

At the other end of the spectrum, some immigrant adults have educational levels far below the average U.S. citizen. Some sectors of the U.S. economy rely heavily on "low-skilled" immigrants, including the agriculture, service,and construction industries. Approximately 75 percent of all hired farm workers and nearly all those involved in the production of fresh fruits and vegetables are either legal or undocumented immigrant adults.

An estimated 460 languages are currently spoken in homes in the United States4. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that between 1979 and 2008, the percentage of children who spoke a second language at home increased from 9 percent to 21 percent 5. Of those individuals speaking a language other than English at home, 62 percent speak Spanish, 19 percent speak another Indo-European language, 15 percent speak an Asian or Pacific Island language, and the remaining 4 percent speak another language6.

Immigrants also contribute to religious diversity. Religion is a fundamental part of life for most people throughout the world7. Newly arrived immigrant adults and children who are feeling disoriented in their new land are particularly likely to turn to their religious communities in times of transition8.

b. What propels migration

Three factors have been identified as driving migration:

  • reuniting with family members
  • searching for work
  • the need for humanitarian protection

Separated families often desire reunification, which may take years, especially when complicated by financial hurdles and immigration regulations9. The longer the separation, the more complicated the family reunification and the greater the likelihood that children will report psychological symptoms10.

Trends in the global economy stimulate migration because immigrants tend to follow where investments and jobs flow. Labor markets in global economies rely on foreign workers both in the highly paid knowledge-intensive sector as well as in the more labor-intensive sector. Economic difficulties in home countries along with higher wages in immigrant destinations lead large numbers of migrants to seek jobs outside their native countries.

Seeking humanitarian protection also contributes to U.S. immigration. By the first decade of the 21st century, there were approximately half a million refugees in the United States. The United States’ stated immigration policy goal is to provide shelter to those fleeing their native countries because they face risk of persecution. Reasons for seeking humanitarian protection include wars, violence and environmental disasters.

c. Dispelling the myths

Although the number of immigrants in the United States is at an all-time high, the rate of immigration today is actually lower than during the last era of mass migration from 1880 to 1920, when European immigrants were arriving in America.

Contrary to popular belief, the number of undocumented immigrants is declining. The vast majority of immigrants in the United States are legal. In 1910, the rate of immigration reached a peak of 14.7 percent, while in 2009 the rate was 12.5 percent. After 3 decades of continuous growth, with a peak in unauthorized migration in 2000, the number has dropped by approximately one million during the last 2 years following the start of the recession in late 2007.

Economists have routinely debated the relative costs and benefits of immigration for the U.S. economy. Contrary to popular perceptions, undocumented immigrants are unable to access a host of services even though they regularly contribute to the federal system through taxes and social security payments automatically deducted from their wages.

There is, however, a general tension between federal governments and state governments when it comes to the economic consequences of immigration. The federal government keeps a large share of the taxes generated by immigrants, while local governments must bear many of the costs and provide the services immigrants consume, particularly for education11.

Despite concerns about the immigrant population’s inability or unwillingness to learn English 12, research finds a consistent pattern of language assimilation within a generation13. Research suggests that immigrants today are highly motivated to learn English and do so more quickly than in previous generations. Compared to their U.S.-born peers, immigrant students have better attendance rates, more positive attitudes toward their teachers and school, higher feelings of being connected to their schools and higher grades when controlling for parental education.

d. Resilience of the population

Immigrants demonstrate a remarkable pattern of strengths. They have very high levels of engagement in the labor market, and the children of immigrants go on to out perform their parents. Although recently arrived immigrants often face many risks, including poverty, discrimination, taxing occupations, fewer years of schooling and social isolation, they do better than expected on a wide range of outcomes compared with their counterparts remaining in the country of origin as well as second-generation immigrants.

(1) U.S. Census. (2010). Place of birth of the foreign born population: 2009. Washington, DC: American Community Survey Brief. (PDF, 482KB)

(2) Suárez-Orozco, M., & Páez, M. (Eds.) (2009). Latinos: Remaking America (2nd Ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press/Cambridge, MA: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University.

(3) Terrazas, A. (2009). African immigrants in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute.

(4) Kindler, A.L., (2002). Survey of the states’ limited English proficient students and available educational programs and services, 2000-2001 summary report. Washington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs.

(5) U.S. Department of Education (2010). The condition of education: 2010. (NCES 2010-028). Indicator 5. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.  

(6) Shin, H. B., & Komiski, R. B. (2010.) Language use in the United States. (PDF, 1.12MB) Washington, D.C.: American Community Survey Reports.

(7) Holden, G. W., & Vittrup, B. (2009). Religion. In M. H. Bornstein (Ed.). Handbook of cultural developmental science (pp. 279-295). New York, NY: Routledge.

(8) Levitt, P. (2007). God needs no passports: Immigrants and the changing American religious landscape. New York, NY: The New Press.

Stepick, A. (2005). God is apparently not dead: The obvious, the emergent, and the still unknown in immigration and religion. In K. Leonard, A. Stepick, M. A. Vasquez, & J. Holdaway (Eds.), Immigrant faiths: Transforming religious life in America (pp. 11-38). Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press.

(9) Menjívar, C., & Abrego, L. (2009). Parents and children across borders: Legal instability and intergenerational relations in Guatemalan and Salvadoran families. In N. Foner (Ed.) Across generations: Immigrant families in America. (pp. 160-189). New York, NY: New York University Press.

(10) Suárez-Orozco, C., Bang, H. J., & Kim, H. Y. (2011). “I felt like my heart was staying behind:” Psychological implications of immigrant family separations & reunification. Journal of Adolescent Research, 26, 222-257.

(11) National Research Council. (1997). The new Americans: Economic, demographic, and fiscal effects of immigration. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.  

Schumacher-Matos, E. (2011). Consensus debate and wishful thinking: The economic impact of immigration. In M. Suárez-Orozco, V. Louie, & R. Suro (Eds). Writing immigration: Academics & journalists in dialogue. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

(12) Bayley, R., & Regan, V. (2004). Introduction: The acquisition of sociolinguistic competence. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 8, 323-338. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9841.2004.00263.x

(13) Alba, R., Logan, J., Lutz, A., & Stults, B. (2002). Only English by the third generation? Loss and preservation of the mother tongue among the grandchildren of contemporary immigrants. Demography, 39(3), 467-484. 

Portes, A., & Schauffler, R. (1994). Language and the second generation: Bilingualism yesterday and today. International Migration Review, 28(4), 640.  

Wong-Fillmore, L. (1991). When learning a language means losing the first. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 6, 323-346.
What is the psychological experience of immigration?
a. Social context of reception
  • Socioecological model
    Ecological approaches acknowledge that behavior does not occur in a vacuum but is affected by the larger culture and society, as well as the local community and its institutions. Thus, the social climate and receiving environment into which immigrants arrive help shape their experience in and adaptation to America. Also, today’s immigrants may adopt American culture without losing the connection to their native culture, and thus enjoy the advantages of biculturalism.

  • Assimilation versus multiculturalism
    The arrival of a new racially diverse wave of immigrants to the United States has highlighted the distinctions between assimilation ("the melting pot") and multiculturalism ("the salad bowl"). Those in favor of "cultural assimilation" believe the best approach is for immigrants (and other minority groups) to rapidly blend into the dominant culture. They contend adopting the norms and rules of the dominant culture will eliminate ethnic differences and thus prejudice will be drastically reduced.

    On the other hand, "multicultural ideology" holds that all cultural groups should have the opportunity to retain their basic cultural norms, values, traditions, and languages within a greater cultural framework. They believe that prejudice is reduced and self-esteem is enhanced through appreciation of group differences. In the end, the solution may involve preserving cultural distinctiveness while also developing a shared identity with those born in the United States.

  • The immigration debate, xenophobia and discrimination
    In the current anti-immigrant climate, xenophobia (hatred or fear of foreigners or strangers or of their politics or culture), and discrimination significantly impact the lives of immigrants. Many immigrants are discriminated against in employment, their neighborhoods, service agencies and schools. Reasons include immigration status, skin color, language skills, and income and education levels. Immigrants are often negatively stereotyped and these stereotypes have negative consequences for well-being.

  • Neighborhoods/communities
    Neighborhood relationships are particularly critical for new immigrants because many aspects of the new environment can be disorienting. Living in ethnic communities seems to protect immigrants from cultural isolation, which in turn, benefits their psychological adjustment. However, pressure to assimilate may be strong outside their ethnic group and lead to discrimination and its negative consequences.

    New immigrants of color who settle in predominantly minority neighborhoods often have virtually no direct, regular and intimate contact with middle-class White Americans. This in turn affects their opportunities to hear and use English, the quality of schools their children attend, and their access to desirable jobs. Concentrated poverty is associated with the lack of job opportunities, and youth in such neighborhoods are chronically under- or unemployed.

b. Acculturation and adaptation
  • Acculturation and mental health
    Acculturation is a multidimensional process that involves changes in many aspects of immigrants’ lives, including language, cultural identity, attitudes and values, types of food and music preferred, media use, ethnic pride, ethnic social relations, cultural familiarity and social customs.14

    Acculturation may occur in stages, with immigrants learning the new language first, followed by behavioral participation in the culture15. While some settings, such as workplaces or schools, are predominantly culturally American, others, such as an immigrant’s ethnic neighborhood and home environment, are predominantly of the heritage culture. From this perspective, acculturation to both cultures provides access to different kinds of resources that are useful in different settings, and in turn, hopefully linked to positive mental health outcomes.

    But even immigrants who have lived in the United States for a long time and who appear to have adopted the American lifestyle may continue to maintain strong identification with, and hold the values of, their culture of origin. This has important implications for providing psychological services to this population. The process of integrating the social and cultural values, ideas, beliefs, and behavioral patterns of the culture of origin with those of the new culture can lead to acculturative stress if they conflict.

  • Acculturation gaps
    Family acculturation gaps extend across a variety of parent–child relationships, and immigrant parents and children increasingly live in different cultural worlds. Because immigrant parents are immersed primarily in one cultural context and their children in another, they often know little of their children’s lives outside the home. For immigrant children, it can be difficult to live with the expectations and demands of one culture in the home and another at school. Children may not turn to their parents with problems and concerns, believing their parents do not know the culture and its institutions well enough to provide them with good advice or assistance.

  • Social trust and civic engagement
    Democratic societies require citizens to interact regularly with each other for political, economic, and social reasons. The current atmosphere of general social distrust in the United States coincides with, and is complicated by, the highest levels of immigration since the last great wave of migration from 1880 to 1920. For immigrants, involvement in U.S. society, politics, and communities represents successful integration into the life of the country.

    A marker of whether new immigrants feel welcomed and accepted in this country is whether they are able to develop social trust and become involved in U.S. society, politics, and communities. While historically, civic engagement was defined as voting, definitions of civic engagement now include the following:

    - attitudes toward political participation
    - acknowledge about government
    - commitment to society
    - activities that help those in need
    - collective action to fight for social justice16

    Although nonnaturalized immigrant adults cannot vote, they can be involved in an array of civic projects. With citizenship and second-generation status come greater civic and political participation17. Not speaking English blocks participation in some activities for the first generation. On the other hand, bilingual competencies can serve as tools for civic engagement among immigrant youth who become involved as culture brokers.18

    Trust and civic engagement do not occur in a vacuum. It remains to be seen how the general climate of distrust in the United States and the current crisis over immigration shape immigrant youths’ civic trust and engagement. Research is needed on how the current political climate influences trust in the culture and future civic engagement.

(14) Yoon, E., Langrehr, K., & Ong, L.Z. (2010). Content analysis of acculturation research in counseling and counseling psychology: A 22-year review. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58(1), 83-96.

(15) Birman, D., & Trickett, E. J. (2001). The process of acculturation in first generation immigrants: A study of Soviet Jewish refugee adolescents and parents. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 32(4), 456-477. doi:10.1177/002202210103200400 
Gordon, M. (1964). Assimilation in American life: The role of race, religion, and national origins. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 

Lee, R. M., Yoon, E., & Liu-Tom, H. T. (2006). Structure and measurement of acculturation/enculturation for Asian Americans using the ARSMA-II. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 39, 42-55.

(16) Flanagan, C., Gallay, L. S., Gill, S., Gallay, E. E., & Nti, N. (2005). What does democracy mean? Correlates of adolescents’ views. Journal of Adolescent Research, 20(2), 193-218. 

Metz, E., & Youniss, J. (2005). Longitudinal gains in civic development through school-based required service. Political Psychology, 26, 413-437. 

Morsillo, J., & Prilleltensky, I. (2007). Social action with youth: Interventions, evaluation, and psychopolitical validity. Journal of Community Psychology, 35, 725-740. 

Torney-Purta, J., Barber, C., & Wilkenfeld, B. (2007). Latino adolescents’ civic development: Research results from the IEA Civic Education Study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(2), 111-125.

(17) Lopez, M. H., & Marcelo, K. B. (2008). The civic engagement of immigrant youth: New evidence from the 2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation Survey. Applied Developmental Science, 12(2), 66-73. 

Stoll, M. A., & Wong, J. A. (2007). Immigration and civic participation in a multiracial and multiethnic context. The International Migration Review, 41(4), 880-908.

(18) Ramakrishnan, S. K., & Baldasarre, M. (2004). The ties that bind: Changing demographics and civic engagement in California. San Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California.
Information for clinicians/service providers
a. Importance of resilience and context

A resilience perspective

The immigration process can cause a variety of psychological problems related to:

  • negotiating loss and separation from country of origin, family members and familiar customs and traditions;
  • exposure to a new physical environment; and
  • the need to navigate unfamiliar cultural experiences.

These problems, including stress, may be acute for first-generation immigrants emigrating from countries in which the social and cultural setting contrasts sharply with that of the United States.

There is no evidence in the literature that immigrants are any more likely to experience mental illness or psychological distress than nonimmigrants, taking into account who does and does not seek treatment. However, when immigrants do experience mental health difficulties, many are particular to the immigration experience.

A wide range of mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse and higher prevalence of severe mental illness and thoughts of suicide have been observed among immigrant populations in the United States. It is also important to note that there are particularly vulnerable immigrant subpopulations (e.g., refugees, older adults, and LGBT populations) that are likely to experience additional stressors that can negatively impact their mental health.

Context matters

From a cultural perspective, the experience of immigrants can be understood as an effort to fit between cultures. Immigrants bring with them cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes that may fit well or may clash with those in the United States. The settings of the larger society and local community can be a source of stress for immigrants. Stressors that can affect immigrants’ mental health and utilization of mental health services include:

  • poverty
  • lack of reception by mainstream society
  • limited networks of social support and opportunities
  • policies that restrict access to health care
  • lack of knowledge about mental health services

Individual factors, such as exposure to trauma during the migration process, can further shape the ways in which immigrants experience, express, and cope with psychological distress. On the other hand, the following factors have been associated with psychological well-being:

  • family cohesion
  • support from extended family
  • positive ethnic identity
  • a sense of belonging and involvement with one’s ethnic community
b. Presenting problems related to:


As immigrants negotiate their identities in a new cultural environment and find ways to cope with immigration-related stress, they may experience increasing family tensions. Intergenerational conflicts are common in immigrant households, reflective of an acculturation gap between parents and children and spouses and partners. Some manifestations of these conflicts are verbal arguments between parents and children regarding friendships, dating, marriage and career choices and between spouses about gender role expectations.

In some cases, second-generation children and adolescents experience role reversal, translating for their parents from their native language to English or helping their parents and/or grandparents navigate mainstream culture. Many older immigrants, particularly those who immigrate late in life and have limited English proficiency, experience loneliness and isolation. They may also have difficulties in navigating a cultural context in which they are no longer revered or sought out as respected elders by family and younger members of their communities.

Traum a

A significant number of immigrants have had previous, recent, and/or ongoing experiences with trauma. Traumatic experiences place immigrants at risk for mental health problems, including depression and anxiety disorders, and particularly posttraumatic stress disorder.

Traumatic experiences can occur at various stages of the immigration process, including:

  • premigration trauma or events that are experienced just before migrating;
  • traumatic events that are experienced during the transit to the new country; and
  • ongoing traumatic experiences in the new country, including substandard living conditions due to unemployment, inadequate supports, and discrimination and/or persecution.

Any of these traumatic events can affect the ways immigrants adjust to their new cultural context.

Undocumented immigrant children and youth are frequently subject to particularly traumatic experiences, including:

  • racial profiling
  • ongoing discrimination
  • exposure to gangs
  • immigration raids
  • having family members arbitrarily stopped to ascertain their documentation status
  • being forcibly taken or separated from their families
  • returning home to find their families have been taken away
  • placement in detention camps or child welfare
  • deportation

Discrimination and racism

Immigrants, especially those of color, are often the targets of discrimination or at least the victims of aggression. Whether subtle or overt, the negative impact of discrimination on the psychological well-being of an individual is still the same. Both open and hidden forms of racism and aggression have important implications for immigrants’ sense of well-being and belonging. Specifically, experiences of racial/ethnic discrimination have been associated with mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and thoughts of suicide.

Lower socioeconomic status

As noted earlier, immigrants represent a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Those who arrive with lower levels of education, or who encounter conditions of unemployment or poverty, face greater challenges to overall well-being.

c. Intervention

Importance of assessment

A challenge in assessment with immigrants is the lack of diagnostic tools that are valid, culturally appropriate, and sensitive and comprehensive enough to capture cultural variability. Clinicians should consider the fairness and utility of diagnostic tests in the context of language, educational background, and cultural norms. It is also important that clinicians understand the implications of psychological testing and diagnosis on an individual basis and recognize that many immigrant clients are concerned about diagnostic labels due to cultural stigma and/or immigration status.

While assessment issues of immigrants are usually in the context of educational and clinical settings, the significance of culture and language has crucial bearing within forensic and judicial/legal settings, including family courts, immigration courts, and criminal courts. Psychologists may be called upon to make critical decisions that significantly affect the lives of immigrants and their families—deportation or asylum, preserving citizenship, uniting or separating families, incarceration or freedom19.

Guiding principles

The present state of knowledge concerning clinical practice suggests that to provide the most effective mental health services to immigrants, clinicians should apply the following guiding principles:

  1. Use an ecological perspective to develop and guide interventions.
  2. Integrate evidence-based practice with practice-based evidence.
  3. Provide culturally competent treatment.
  4. Use comprehensive community-based services.
  5. Use a social justice perspective as a driving force for all services.

Clinicians can benefit by using multiple sources of evidence in their approaches to assessment with immigrant clients. In addition to identifying culture-specific expressions of well-being and distress, it is important that researchers critically examine resources developed in a Western middle-class context before applying them to non-Western, non-middle-class participants. Bicultural and bilingual researchers are better able to establish a rapport and trust within immigrant communities and gain entry into populations that might otherwise be difficult to access.

Collaboration should be sought with family members, community members, and one another to provide effective and ethical mental and behavioral health and educational support for immigrant-origin adults (including older adults), children and adolescents, and families.

Common barriers to treatment

A number of barriers to culturally sensitive and appropriate mental health services for racial/ethnic minority and immigrant populations have been well documented in the literature. Some immigrants may view self-help as the best means of dealing with mental health problems or may lack an understanding as to how psychological problems can be treated from a Western perspective.

Others may prefer alternate sources of help that are rooted in their cultural origin, e.g., priests or imams. Some cultures that maintain strong family ties see individuals with mental health problems as bringing shame to the family, destroying the family reputation, exemplifying an overall family weakness or a retribution for family wrongs.

Other barriers to treatment include

  • lack of access to appropriate and culturally sensitive mental health services;
  • lack of knowledge of available mental health services;
  • a shortage of mental health workers who are racial/ethnic minorities or trained to work with racial/ethnic minority or culturally diverse children, adolescents, adults (including older adults), and families;
  • lack of access to interpreters; and
  • lack of resources for accessing services (e.g., lack of child care, transportation, or finances).

In particular, unauthorized immigrants face additional challenges related to their documentation status (e.g., ineligibility for services provided by the county or state, fear of identification as undocumented, and potential for deportation). Those who live a migrant existence typically do not seek help, either due to fears related to unauthorized status or due to moving from place to place in search of work. Immigrants in rural areas may face additional barriers, including lack of access to culturally competent services and service providers.

(19) Legal Action Center of the American Immigration Council (2010). Immigrants with mental disabilities in removal proceedings. Washington, D.C.: Author.
Information for educators
a. Importance of resilience and context

A resilience perspective

The pattern of high achievement among many first-generation immigrants is remarkable given the myriad of challenges they encounter, including:

  • xenophobia
  • economic obstacles
  • language difficulties
  • family separations
  • under-resourced neighborhoods and schools
  • the struggle to get their bearings in a new educational system

But immigrant children demonstrate certain advantages. They enter U.S. schools with:

  • tremendous optimism
  • high aspirations
  • dedication to hard work
  • positive attitudes toward school
  • an ethic of family support for advanced learning

First-generation students show a number of positive academic behaviors and attitudes that often lead to stronger-than-expected academic outcomes. Some age groups have higher scores on standardized tests than their U.S.-born peers, particularly on standardized math tests. However, a decline in academic aspirations, engagement, and performance has been documented over time and across generations.

Immigrant students whose education has been interrupted, or who have had no prior formal education, face particular challenges in making a transition to U.S. schools. This includes children coming from conditions of poverty where older children are expected to work and secondary schooling is unavailable. Many refugee children arrive after prolonged stays in refugee camps, never having been in school, and some come from cultures with no traditions of literacy in any language.

It is estimated that 20% of English Language Learner (ELL) high school students and 12% of ELL middle school students have missed 2 or more years of schooling. Students with Interrupted Formal Education (SIFE) arrive with limited literacy skills in their native language, and yet need to master a new language, literacy, and gaps in their knowledge across academic subjects. They face distinctive challenges in adjusting to school, lacking the expected skills to complete homework assignments or participate in most classroom activities, or in extreme cases, even knowledge of how to use pencil and paper.

Context matters

Resettlement shapes the experiences of immigrant students in their neighborhoods, families, and schools. A number of factors, including family capital and school resources available to newcomer students, can bolster or undermine academic integration and adaptation. Although some immigrant students come from privileged backgrounds, children living in families headed by immigrant parents are more likely to live in poverty than their nonimmigrant peers. This is a significant issue to consider, as immigrant-origin children are more likely to be raised in poverty than any other group of children residing in the United States.

Educational attainment within the first generation is closely, but not exclusively, tied to parental educational levels. Youth arriving from families with lower levels of education tend to struggle academically, while those who come from more literate families and with strong skills often flourish. Highly literate parents are better equipped to guide their children in studying, accessing educational information, and supporting literacy development either in their native language or in English.

U.S. schools are often not well prepared to serve immigrant-origin students. Schools that serve ELL students have chronic shortages of teachers with specialized training, and principals, counselors, and other support staff rarely have specialized training either. In general, education of immigrant-origin students is conceived of as an addition to the "normal" functions of the secondary school. Thus programming to meet the needs of these students often happens in the absence of sufficient expertise or clear standards.

b. Importance of assessment

Approximately 20,000 mental, personality and educational tests are developed and published each year, yet many of these tests suffer from traditional test practices and assessment biases that lead to (mis)diagnosis and inappropriate interventions. For testing and assessment to be culturally appropriate, there needs to be a continuous, intentional, and active preoccupation with the culture of the group or individual being assessed.

The challenge of appropriately assessing immigrants and English Language Learners (ELLs) affects this population in three general areas:

  • placement in special education
  • ability, achievement and aptitude testing
  • use of clinical assessment measures (i.e., the WISC-III and MMPI)

Schools have limited assessment strategies to differentiate between adjustment and learning disorders with regard to English Language Learners (ELLs), or non-English learners, often lacking the means or ability to adapt tests, or make appropriate administration, translation, or assessment adaptations. Thus, many errors are made, in both over- and underdiagnosing adjustment and learning disorders in school settings.

Many school systems do not assess newly arrived immigrant students for mental disabilities for at least one year because they deem it impossible to differentiate adjustment difficulties from mental disabilities. Research suggests that poor, immigrant, and racial/ethnic minority children are disproportionately placed in low-ability groups early in their education.

Students from Spanish-speaking, ELL backgrounds are overly referred to specialized programs for students with speech and language learning disabilities. Teachers referring immigrant students for special education testing may inappropriately assess their behavior because they misunderstand that they are behaving according to the norms of their heritage culture. At the same time, some children who need such services do not receive them because valid assessment instruments do not exist in most immigrant languages.

c. Issues related to immigrant-origin students learning English

Acquiring the language of the host country is a critical aspect of academic transition for first-generation immigrant students. According to an Urban Institute Report, 62% of foreign-born children speak English less than "very well"20. However, there is a great distinction between interpersonal communicative English and academic English. Although developing academic second-language skills generally requires 4 to 7 years of optimal academic instruction, students in the United States are generally expected to transition out of second-language acquisition programs within 3 years.

While schools place an emphasis on learning English, research suggests that native language retention is also important. When students are well grounded in their native language and have developed reading and writing skills in that language, they are better able to efficiently apply that knowledge to the new language when provided appropriate instructional supports. Unfortunately, many immigrant students do not encounter strong second-language-acquisition programs in their schools.

d. Importance of school belonging and parental involvement

School belonging

In addition to language-related challenges, immigrant students must transfer their academic skills to the U.S. school environment and form relationships with peers and school adults. A sense of school belonging has been defined as the level of attachment, commitment, involvement and belief students have in the value of their school.

This sense of belonging, in turn, has implications for increasing social involvement, motivation, school attendance, academic engagement and ultimately achievement. In addition, for immigrant students, a sense of school belonging has been found to predict better mental health, indicating the importance of feeling "at home" in their new environment.

A sense of school belonging can be fostered by social support from peers and school adults. Positive relationships with school adults can help bridge the gap between home and school cultures and aide language and cultural connections to the new society.

Supportive relationships with caring adults in the school context provide emotional sustenance as well as practical help and advice and can sometimes spark active participation in subject areas that may have traditionally held little interest. Conversely, students may lose interest if they perceive a diminished concern about their progress on the part of the teacher.

ELL (both bilingual and ESL) teachers play a critically important role in the school experience of newcomer students. As "first responders" to the nation’s immigrant students, they tend to spend more time, in smaller classrooms, getting to know their students and becoming their advocates in the school.

Bilingual teachers have the additional advantage of being able to communicate with parents in their native language and serve as a bridge between home and school. These teachers are often asked to take on a number of roles both inside and outside the classroom not formally recognized or valued by school authorities. They fill gaps in educational programs that don’t meet students’ needs, provide professional development for mainstream teachers, reach out to students’ families, and search for additional resources unavailable at school.

At the same time, they are often blamed when their students don’t perform well in mainstream classes. Despite the tremendous importance of their work for immigrant-origin students, research suggests that ELL teachers are not sufficiently supported.

Parental involvement

Parental school involvement (e.g., participating in Parent-Teacher Organizations, volunteering in class and chaperoning field trips) has shown profound positive effects on performance and adaptation to school for U.S.-born students. Teachers view those parents as supportive of their children's learning. For immigrant parents, however, such involvement may be neither a familiar cultural practice in their countries of origin nor a luxury their current financial situation allows.

Not speaking English and having limited education may make parents feel inadequate when communicating with teachers. Lack of documentation may make them worry about exposure to immigration raids. Low-wage, low-skill jobs with off-hour shifts typically limit flexibility to attend parent–teacher conferences. The impediments to coming to school are multiple and can frequently be mistaken by teachers and principals as parents "not valuing" their children’s education.

Despite this perception by many educators, most immigrant parents describe providing better educational opportunities for their children as the goal of immigration. Parents may be involved, but in ways different than expected by U.S./Western schools. Many immigrant parents come from cultural traditions where parents are expected to respect teachers’ recommendations rather than advocate for their children. They see their role as supporting their children’s education at home and deferring to teachers during the school day.

In addition, not having gone to U.S. schools themselves, immigrant parents often don’t understand

  • how schools are organized,
  • what schools expect from children (e.g., expressing opinions rather than rote memorization),
  • how to deal with learning problems, or
  • how to communicate with the school.

Thus, teachers may perceive immigrant parents as disinterested, reach out to them less, and as a result, the parents know even less about school matters.

Ideally schools should make contact with immigrant parents in positive circumstances rather than waiting for a crisis. Immigrant parents' knowledge of school practices has been found to predict higher grades for immigrant students, suggesting the unique importance of such knowledge. Regardless of parents’ preferred form of involvement, keeping them abreast of their children’s academic progress, sharing important notices and events, and communicating information about school policies are some of the most critical ways that school districts can work to promote parent involvement.

(20) Capps, R. M., Fix, M., Murray, J., Ost, J., Passel, J. S., & Herwantoro, S. (2005). The new demography of America's schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act. (PDF, 86.71KB) Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute.
Information for researchers
a. Assessment considerations

The challenges of the field when assessing immigrants and second-language learners are aptly summed up by the question: "Who is given tests in what language by whom, when and where?"

To assure valid measures and avoid misdiagnoses of ELL students, immigrant groups and racial/ethnic minority groups, the field of psychology must seriously revise testing and assessment practices. Much of the field of assessment is plagued by the challenge of differentiating among measurement errors, learner characteristics (e.g., language, acculturation and socioeconomic status), and learning conditions (e.g., school district, bilingual versus full-immersion program and lack of appropriate instruction). Clinicians and practitioners need to be provided significant training to distinguish learning characteristics from learning conditions and understand multiculturalism in broader terms.

To establish a valid model of identification for English Language Learners and learning disability, researchers have proposed that four important changes need to take place, including:

  • development of a single, operational definition of English Language Learners;
  • better understanding of the developmental norms for all ELLs, with or without learning difficulties;
  • better understanding of longitudinal developmental norms of language and literacy skills and the influence of instruction and demographics over time; and
  • consideration of differences of immigrant communities by disaggregating factors such as culture and language of origin, content learned in country of origin, socioeconomic status (pre- and postmigration), and ability to negotiate language development between the two languages.
b. Research considerations

To construct valid and culturally meaningful research, psychology must further the understanding of how different cultural groups vary in beliefs and cultural practices around well-being, distress, and healing. It is important that researchers critically examine models developed in a Western middle-class context before applying them to non-Western, non-middle-class participants (21).

Ideally research should be designed to meet the following characteristics of the individual or group under consideration:

  • age at migration
  • current age
  • length of residency in the United States
  • generational status (e.g., first, 1.5, or second)
  • English-language proficiency
  • education
  • extent of acculturation
  • gender
  • race
  • sexual orientation
  • religion
  • social class
  • disability/ability
  • country of origin

A representative, comprehensive general population survey of first- and second-generation immigrants, however, is difficult to conduct for a variety of reasons that include:

  • insufficient funding,
  • difficulties of validating and translating instruments across groups,
  • lack of widely representative community samples, and
  • historically low rates of participation.

A variety of strategies for conducting sound research are recommended, including:

  • using triangulated data collected from a variety of perspectives,
  • combining "outsider" (etic) and "insider" (emic) points of view,
  • collecting developmental and longitudinal perspectives, and
  • combining mixed-methods—quantitative and qualitative approaches.
c. Ethical considerations

There are particular ethical considerations when working with immigrant-origin populations. Power dynamics between researcher and participant are always a concern but are accentuated between the researcher and immigrant participant, particularly when the participant is less-educated or undocumented21.

Since some portion of first-generation participants may be undocumented, researchers must give thought to that issue when formulating the study, recruiting participants, and conducting the study. In the current climate of deportation, extra precautions must be taken to shield the identities of these participants.

The task force recommends consulting the APA Code of Ethics to resolve potential conflicts. The strictest ethical standards must be upheld to maintain the trust of the community and not place research participants at risk.

(21) American Psychological Association (2010). Resilience and recovery after war: Refugee children and families in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Author.