The Social and Economic Integration of Immigrants: Realizing our Role as Developmental Scientists

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The U.S. population is undergoing a major shift in its demographic composition[1]. Since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, there has been increasing inflows of immigrants primarily from Asia and Latin America. There are two key features to note about this wave of immigration. First, these immigrants are racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse (read: non-white and bilingual). Second, they are primarily young—children and working-age adults. Because of their racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, these new Americans face similar circumstances as native-born ethnic minorities in the U.S. That is, their race/ethnicity positions them in the lower echelons of the U.S. social stratification system[2] (i.e., Whites at the top, Hispanics and Blacks at the bottom). This lower social position introduces special challenges to the social and economic integration of immigrants such as racism, prejudice, discrimination, and segregation. These forces permeate every level of their environment—from direct interactions with teachers in schools to experiences in the workplace to access to social services.

Nevertheless, there is an increased need to ensure the smooth and successful integration of immigrants. As stated previously, most immigrants are young and represent a significant portion of the school- and working-age population. In contrast, the majority-white Baby Boom generation is aging, with growing numbers retiring from the workforce and requiring more health and social services. As other scholars have argued[1], immigrants who are healthy and adequately prepared for the workforce will be the primary drivers of the social and economic growth of this nation. Successful integration is possible because of the strengths that immigrants bring with them (e.g., linguistic and cultural diversity, strong work ethic, positive attitudes toward school), and the opportunities the U.S. has to help shape their development through education, and social and clinical services[3]. Unfortunately, the support that could come from education and other social systems is challenged by the prevailing ethos or attitudes toward immigrants in the larger society or the “context of reception”[3]. These attitudes towards immigrants, especially those expressed in the media, have tended to be overwhelmingly negative, and in recent times, have been communicated very explicitly. For example, in the most recent election, Presidential Candidate, now President Donald J. Trump called most Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists.” These prejudicial attitudes are influential and lead to discriminatory policies (e.g., the executive order to build a wall along the Mexican-U.S. border and the executive order banning immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries) that have broad, long-lasting impact on the everyday lives of immigrants in U.S. society.

As researchers and practitioners interested in adolescent development, we have theories and research that can contribute to social and economic integration policies and practices for immigrants. Classic theories such as Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model[4] identify the multiple interacting levels of society that are ripe for intervention. Additionally, the American Psychological Association has comprehensive reviews of psychological research on immigrants to the US and ethnic and racial disparities in education that make recommendations for facilitating the positive development of immigrant youth. For example, these reports draw attention to the need for culturally competent clinical assessment and treatment, and for expanded access to high-quality bilingual education.

What appears to be missing in the use of research to influence the lives of immigrants is political will and power. Thankfully, given recent socio-political events, developmental scientists (and indeed scientists everywhere) are realizing that our role must extend beyond research and intervention to include activism and advocacy. The recent March for Science is evidence of this realization. The next steps of scientists’ engagement in activism, and advocacy might involve using a combination of organized and grassroots movements like “A Day without Immigrants” to turn the spotlight on divisive issues such as immigration. The public needs a better understanding of the psychology of immigration, and to see how developmental science has been used and can be used to facilitate the positive development of immigrant youth. In the movement for social change in immigration policy, we are co-allies with a better-informed public.

1. Passel, J. S. (2011). Demography of immigrant youth: Past, present, and future. Future of Children, 21(1), 19–41. Retrieved from
2. García Coll, C., Lamberty, G., Jenkins, R., McAdoo, H. P., Crnic, K., Wasik, B. H., & Garcia, H. V. (1996). An integrative model for the study of developmental competencies in minority children. Child Development, 67(5), 1891–1914.
3. APA Presidential Task Force on Immigration. (2013). Crossroads: The psychology of immigration in the new century. Journal of Latina/O Psychology, 1(3), 133–148.
4. Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (1998). The ecology of developmental processes. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Volume 1: Theoretical models of human development (5th ed.) (pp. 993–1028). Hoboken, NJ, US: John Wiley & Sons Inc.