Good Immigration Reform Means Keeping Families Together

Mother and son at immigration rally
Image provided courtesy of Flickr user: Anuska Sampredo

By Benjamin Vonachen (Senior Legislative Assistant, PI Government Relations Office)

Can evidence-based psychological science be a persuasive voice in immigration reform? 

The already passionate immigration debate before the U.S. Senate struck an emotional tone when Senator Al Franken (D-MN) took to the floor to address the issue of children/parent separations caused by immigration proceedings.

“Over the past two years, more than 200,000 parents of citizen children were deported,” said Franken. “These children are often abandoned at home or at school and can go for months without speaking or visiting their parents.”

Senator Franken’s passionate remarks, while grounded in first-hand accounts from his home state of Minnesota, were also supported by recently emerging psychological evidence. It is not surprising that family separations can be traumatic. Research has found that the immigration experience can profoundly impact the social and emotional development of children, especially those separated from their families or facing an uncertain future.

APA’s 2012 Presidential Task Force Report on Immigration, Crossroads: The Psychology of Immigration in the New Century, cites studies that find that both a longer separation and a more complex family reunification process increase the likelihood of psychological symptoms among children of immigrants.  These experiences were further documented in APA’s “Undocumented Americans” video produced by PI’s Children, Youth and Families office.

The most recent Senate immigration bill, Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744), which passed the U.S. Senate by a 68-32 bipartisan supermajority, features a number of provisions on issues ranging from child welfare to humane detention standards to educational achievement, among others, which are relevant to psychology.

Due, in part, to the bill’s emphasis on protecting and keeping families together, APA offered a letter of support for Senator Al Franken’s (D-MN) successful amendment to S.744 that would require Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) to consider the best interests of children in the detention, release and transfer decisions affecting their parents. This amendment also includes stipulations that immigrant parents must receive free confidential calls to arrange for their children’s care while in ICE custody.

APA also offered a letter of support for Senator Patrick Leahy’s amendment to S.744 that would have allowed for U.S. citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners in family-based immigration procedures.  The amendment, which was drafted prior to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act, was ultimately not brought before the Judiciary Committee’s consideration.

APA is strongly committed to these issues and the Public Interest Government Relations Office has pursued a variety of advocacy activities over the last three years, including:

  • the widespread distribution of the APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration report to congressional offices and staff;
  • a congressional briefing in the U.S. House of Representatives; and
  • numerous face-to-face visits with key policy makers.

With time running out on the 2013 congressional calendar, APA stands ready to help ensure that good psychological science influences the negotiations in the House of Representatives and Senate to fix our nation’s immigration system. APA continues to urge the House to take action and to keep provisions relevant to psychology and mental health such as the Franken amendment in any legislation.

We want to hear from you. Tell us in the comments:

  • What are your thoughts about the immigration debate before Congress and its implications for psychology?
  • Do you have information that could be helpful to us in our advocacy efforts?

It is always important to remind Congress of your perspective! Join APA’s Public Policy Action Network to receive grassroots advocacy and action alert updates to help influence Congress.

This is Part One in a series of blog posts on the topic of immigration. Part Two of the series is by 2011 APA President Melba Vasquez who discusses how psychology debunks many myths about immigrants. Part Three of the series by Dr. Carola Suarez-Orozco looks at the implications of unauthorized status for immigrant children and youth.


  1. It is sad to see our APA continue to advance another politically partisan positions using our psychological science. In unbiased responsible science, one must ask what question is being asked, toward what end, and whether the question contains political assumptions and goals. Remember the research suggesting Blacks had lower IQ’s than Whites? Do we think that was really useful and worthy? No reasonable person wants to see any American children mistreated. Certainly we should care for these children humanely. However, the basic issue of illegal immigration and anchor children must be addressed politically. I don’t see much of an informative role for APA in this issue.


    1. I strongly believe that APA has much to say about immigration reform. Social justice, with the goal to decrease human suffering and to promote human values of equality and justice, is informed by psychological science and knowledge. Although psychological science has at times been abused to support and maintain destructive practices to maintain the status quo of dominance and subordination, APA has used its science to engage in social justice advocacy positions beginning after its reorganization after World War II. In my presidential address, published in the American Psychologist, (2012, pp. 337-346), I provide a brief history of APA’s commitment to social justice.

      Today, we advocate on behalf of funding for social and behavior science, to gain necessary changes to Medicare payment formula for psychologists, to increase financial and policy support for education and training, and to promote aspects of psychology that involve solutions to the fundamental problems of human justice. I did not become a psychologist to understand human behavior and then hold that information while I observed society at a distance. I am proud to be a member of an organization that applies our scientific understanding to advance improve the lives of those who do not share equitably in society’s resources and to promote equal opportunity and empowerment. We do so through our amicus briefs in the court system, through our congressional briefings and visits to legislatures, and through dissemination of information such as that related to the experience of immigration.


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