The Impact of Immigration Policy on Latino Families: A Call to Action for Psychologists

Under the current administration, the past year has seen dramatic shifts in immigration policy, including increased immigration enforcement, travel bans targeting primarily Muslim countries, the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and the rescission of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans, Haitians, and Nepalese (The White House, 2017). Although some of these policies are being litigated, the negative effects of these proposed policies have had a resounding impact on the well-being of immigrant communities. Notably, research has shown that the Latino immigrant community is disproportionally affected by restrictive immigration policy, including forcible removal (deportation). Current estimates reveal that the Latino population is the largest minority group in the U.S., with 19 million foreign-born individuals from Latin America. Despite the negative rhetoric surrounding Latin American immigrants, these communities contribute to our society by benefitting the economy, professional sector, and cultural fabric of our country. As psychologists, we must pay careful attention to the harmful impact of immigration policies on Latino communities, working collaboratively with researchers, policy makers, and communities to improve mental health and advocate for humane immigration policy.

In our recently published article in American Psychologist, we discussed the effects of immigration policies, practices, and procedures on the mental health of Mexican and Central American families. Using Foster’s (2001) stages of migration, we discuss how immigrants may experience stress and trauma in, (1) their country of origin, (2) during migration, and (3) upon settling in the host country (post-migration stress). Although there is considerable diversity in migration stories, many Mexican and Central American families are exposed to tremendous amounts of stress and trauma in their home country, including poverty, drug-related violence, and limited educational opportunities. Unfortunately, this stress and trauma often continues upon settling in the U.S. and arguably exacerbates the impact of cumulative distress and negative well-being. For example, Latino immigrant families can be impacted by structural and interpersonal discrimination, fear, and barred access to opportunities (e.g. healthcare, education) regardless of documentation status.

It is critical for psychologists to understand the immigration policies and practices in place that directly or indirectly impact Latino families. For example, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) dramatically changed the landscape for families who overstayed their visa or entered the country illegally by imposing 5 and 10 year “bars of inadmissibility,” preventing those individuals from entering the U.S. again. IIRIRA also expanded the categories for what would be considered grounds for deportation, including misdemeanors like shoplifting. The Trump administration issued an executive order allowing local and state law enforcement, previously limited to federal officials only, to search and detain unauthorized immigrants in border regions, dramatically expanding the number of law enforcement officials allowed to detain and deport individuals. The presence of these policies and others can significantly impact the well-being of Latino immigrant families in these regions.

As psychologists, it is crucial to become aware of how immigration policies can impact the presence of trauma, depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders. These policies can serve to exacerbate experiences of discrimination across Latino families, lead to fear and mistrust, and continue to perpetuate systemic poverty and barred access to opportunities. These post-migration stressors (e.g. fear of deportation, discrimination) are inextricably linked to mental health outcomes among Latino parents and children. For example, experiences of discrimination, including interpersonal and discriminatory policies, have been linked to both internalizing symptoms, including anxiety and depression, and behavior problems among children. Moreover, fear of deportation or mistrust can permeate the family unit and have a damaging psychological impact on both parents and children, regardless of documentation status. When families are forcibly separated or a parent is deported, this can have traumatic consequences on a child’s mental health, attachment, and economic stability. Immigration policies that support deportation and perpetuate discrimination worsen these experiences and have a long-term impact on mental health.

Given the far-reaching impact of immigration stress, how can psychologists help alleviate this distress? There are many ways psychologists can contribute positively to mitigate the trauma, distress, and mental health difficulties that stem from immigration policies. On an individual level, psychologists can adopt a culturally sensitive framework when working with immigrant clients and tailor evidence-based treatments. Moreover, understanding the stages of migration can help conceptualize how stress and trauma may accumulate over time and worsen upon migration to the U.S. Psychologists must also become advocates in their clinical work, by educating immigrants on their rights and linking families to legal supports. Psychologists conducting research are encouraged to conduct community-based participatory research (CBPR) and use a strengths-based approach to investigate the interventions that might be most helpful within Latino communities. Moreover, this research should be disseminated to individuals beyondthe psychology field. To advocate for Latino immigrant populations, psychologists must disseminate this information to schools, community leaders, and most importantly, policy makers.

Psychologists are also encouraged to become advocates on a systemic level. Psychologists can seek to become more involved in vocal efforts to denounce immigration policies and practices which exacerbate stress and trauma experienced by immigrant families. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) has recently made statements in support of DACA and opposed policies that propose increased border enforcement and deportations that create “toxic stress” in our communities. A Psychologist’s Guide to Federal Advocacyencourages psychologists to write letters, make phone calls, and meet with legislators in order to make a firm stance about a social justice issue within psychology. Learning more about advocacy and community-building is another crucial step for psychologists. The Community Toolbox, often used by community psychologists to mobilize efforts, provides comprehensive and step-by-step guidance on how to conduct advocacy research, conduct a direct-action campaign, and media advocacy. Advocacy for immigration reform is a collaborative effort and psychologists can bring a unique and important perspective to the field. We encourage you to read these resources on advocacy. We can work together to alleviate the impact of immigration stress not only on an individual level, but also by advocating for policies that empower and support healthier families and communities.

Discussion Questions

Given that Latino individuals may face uncontrollable stress perpetuated by immigration policies and climate, how might psychologists assess for these stressors? Subsequently, how can psychologists tailor individual and community-based intervention efforts?

How can the field of clinical psychology continue to advocate for Latino immigrant communities through involvement in research, community-building, and policy work?  What are some initial steps psychologists can take to become advocates beyond their work with individual clients and families?

Reference Article

Torres, S.A., Santiago, C.D., Richards, M., & Kaufka Walts, K. (2018). Immigration Policy, Practices, and Procedures: The Impact on the Mental Health of Latino Youth and Families. The American Psychologist. Advance online publication.

About the Authors

Stephanie Torres, M.A. is a 6thyear doctoral candidate in the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Program at Loyola University Chicago and will be completing her clinical internship at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Her research interests focus on the role that cultural and contextual factors have on the mental health of Latino families and in the development of evidence-based and culturally tailored community interventions. She is a recipient of the Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship, with her current dissertation research focusing on the impact of immigration-related stress and climate on mental health within Latino communities.

Dr. Catherine DeCarlo Santiago is an Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology at Loyola University Chicago.  Her research program focuses on how children and families respond to stress and trauma as well as how community interventions can improve functioning and promote resilience. In addition, she is interested in applications of this work to policy and advocacy. She has received funding for her work from several organizations, including the Foundation for Child Development and the American Psychological Foundation.

Dr. Maryse H. Richards is a professor of Clinical and Developmental Psychology at Loyola University Chicago. She received her Ph.D. in Human Development from the University of Chicago. Her current research interests include the development of adolescents of color with a focus on exposure to community violence, cross age peer mentoring, poverty, resilience, and how these relate to psychosocial well-being.

Katherine Kaufka Walts, JD, is the Director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University Chicago. Prior to joining Loyola, she practiced immigration law at the National Immigrant Justice Center. She is an expert on children’s rights, migration, immigration, and human trafficking.


White House. (2017). Executive Order on Protecting the Homeland. Retrieved from