Flip through the U.S. passport, stop at pages 44 and 45, and read the first two lines from the top of the page, which state that “It is immigrants who brought to this land the skills of their hands and brains to make it a beacon of opportunity and hope for all men.”
Despite immigration historically being linked to the United States’ growth and economic development, a lot of Americans have developed negative perceptions of immigrants. In a study conducted by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, researchers found that two-thirds of the immigrant Latino and Asian survey participants faced discrimination in the workplace due to skin color or accent.
To many immigrants living in the U.S., successfully naturalizing and officially becoming a citizen is the dream, not only to inherit the benefits and privileges reserved for U.S. citizens, but also to be embraced and protected by the country. Regardless of the significant role that immigrants have played in America’s past and modern development, their values are often despised by the majority of American society, especially by the government.
Despite immigrants’ efforts to learn the language, adapt to the culture, and become a part of society, they face hardships in acculturating and assimilating into their country. In addition, the austere and costly naturalization procedure, combined with the pressure of adjusting to the new culture and the constant discrimination that they face every day, have created barriers in immigrants’ lives. In order to combat the assimilation challenges, providing mental health resources and establishing open policies can contribute to lessening the burden.
The anti-immigrant rhetoric
Immigration policies in the early days of the United States tended to favor Western European immigrants while excluding other populations. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, forbade male workers from China, while the Immigration Act of 1917 limited immigration from various countries, ranging from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. It was not until 1965 that the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 marked the turning point in U.S. immigration policy. This act repealed the previous quota system for immigration and opened the door to people from all countries. This has resulted in a large increase in Asian, African, and Latin American immigration. Nevertheless, there are still restrictions that not only limit immigrants from entering the U.S., but also restrain them from fully assimilating into the country.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, the rights of those who immigrated illegally were protected by law under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. THese legal protections vanished, however, when former President Donald Trump abruptly ended the DACA program in 2017. Now that shield has turned into a sword that the Trump administration used to propel them out into an inevitably hopeless future. This decision put the dreams of many immigrants on a thin line as it ended the life that took them years to build up. Furthermore, with the implementation of the 2018 “zero tolerance” immigration policy by the Trump administration, nearly 2,000 minors who crossed the border into the U.S. were separated from their parents or legal guardians at the Mexican border. An “open” immigration policy and border, though many critics argue it seems unreasonable, would prevent family separation tragedies for immigrant families and build opportunities for immigrant children.
One way to approach this, according to an HPR interview with Jorge Santos, professor of Latin American, Latinx, and Caribbean Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, is to implement background checks and establish a monitoring system that would allow the government to track the immigrants, because “the reality is that immigrants will gladly take a number or a ticket and let you track them if they could if that meant they would not live in the shadows.”
Aside from the laws and restrictions that are placed on undocumented immigrants, the United States is generally considered to have a very rigorous naturalization process. Although people who apply for citizenship have already gone through a lengthy residency process, in order to become a citizen, you have to pay a large fee to take the citizenship test. The paradox is that these people are already lawfully residing in the United States as permanent residents. America is legally their home and they are citizens, just not on paper. Many immigrants live paycheck to paycheck; the fact that they must spend $1,170 to obtain the right to vote and have their voice heard sets a roadblock for immigrants to access the exam. The naturalization process adds an additional layer of burden, not only financially, but also mentally, in their journey to fully integrating into America. “There is a money issue, in addition to paperwork, learning the test materials, it’s a psychological toll for them,” saidWooksoo Kim, professor in the Social Work department at the University of Buffalo, in an interview with the HPR.
The price of the American dream
Immigrants, although they come from different regions of the world for different reasons, often carry the universal dream of free life, finding stable housing, and building a brighter future for their families when they come to the U.S. In a statement commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center, said, “Immigrants come to this country because they believe in the American Dream. Those who were brought here as children without documents call themselves ‘DREAMers’ as they pray for the chance to become citizens.”
Because many immigrants strongly and devotedly believe in the American dream, they are willing to take the risk and leave their home country. However, leaving their native nation and pursuing American ambitions sometimes comes with unforeseen costs.
Every year, thousands of people migrate to San Antonio, Texas, 150 miles from the Mexican border, which is considered the immigration center of the United States, to escape poverty and violence and make their American dream come true. On Jun. 29, 2022, 53 migrants were found suffocated to death in a tractor-trailer in Texas. Not all migrants have the legal opportunity to migrate to a country, especially when so many individuals desire to move in search of a better life for themselves and their families. However, with strict immigration policies and long waits, many people choose a riskier path — migrant smuggling. Despite hardships and dangers, the flow of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. continues to rise. No matter how thin the gap between the American dream and the emigration tragedy is, many migrants still want to bet their lives on this gamble, despite the huge costs.
Aside from the horrific tragedies that befall the immigrant community, the more fortunate immigrant population that are able to set foot on American soil are not always met with welcoming attitudes and equal treatment. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of hate crimes directed toward Asian immigrants. According to the Pew Research Center, “four-in-ten Latinos say they have experienced discrimination in the past year, such as being criticized for speaking Spanish or being told to go back to their home country.”
Immigrants risk their lives, cross borders, and move to a country where unforeseen circumstances and discrimination occur more than welcoming hugs and delightful attitudes. The trauma, combined with the additional layer of racism, makes it harder for immigrants to assimilate into the country. Santos emphasized the need to “realize that immigrants are coming from situations where they are risking their lives to escape the everyday violence and the drug trafficking trade.” Therefore, it is critical forAmericans to frequently have a true conversation with themselves about their treatment of the immigrant community. In addition to that, we as a community should work together to find direct ways to demonstrate our support for immigrants who are not only dealing with trauma but also going through all of the challenges of cultural adjustment.
The forgotten and neglected mental well-being of immigrants
When immigrants move to a new nation, the first thing they will encounter is the massive obstacle of acclimating to the new environment, culture, and legal system, and learning a completely new language. According to research published in 2018, adolescent immigrants are more likely to experience mental health issues as a result of the abrupt transition to a foreign culture and environment, in addition to the pressure and stress placed on them to succeed. Apart from the cultural adjustment challenge, many refugees and migrants also experience an additional layer of traumatic experiences and unremovable scars that are left on their psyche in their home country. There are numerous mental health concerns that have not been properly addressed.
The notion that integration can happen quickly for immigrants, migrants, and refugees is erroneous. The hardship that they are going through often cannot be solved quickly, which is unfortunate, but indisputable. These individuals will surely need support from their local community because “these various efforts will create welcoming communities,” suggested Dina Birman, professor of educational and psychological studies at the University of Miami, in an interview with the HPR.
Even though the U.S. highly prioritizes family reunification, immigrant visa wait periods appear to be constantly increasing. Immigrants from Mexico, India, China, and the Philippines suffer the longest wait time, which can last up to 20 years depending on family relationships, marriage status, and other factors. Regardless of the long wait time, many immigrants desire to sponsor their family members to the U.S. They not only want to provide an opportunity for their other family members, but they also want to fulfill the empty spaces that only family can, such as support and comfort in times of joy and distress. “If you think about kind of what makes people happy and satisfied in life, it’s having your loved ones and your family life is very important,” explained Birman.
Combating the structural issues
The essential question that needs to be addressed is how the U.S. government and we, as a community, can help immigrants integrate into a new society by protecting and welcoming them. Regardless of an individual’s race or legal status, it is our obligation as humans to help them assimilate into America and make their experience as welcoming as possible. As Kim suggests, “We have to provide the mental health services and make things accessible for them, it could be either the service facilities that are close to them or providing language support.” In the long run, “we probably want to create or support the capacity within their own community so that there are a lot of bicultural and bilingual therapists or professionals who can help them,” because we want to make sure that language will not become a barrier in preventing immigrants from receiving psychological support.
Language is a barrier that many immigrants face moving to America, which prevents them from communicating freely, and gaining access to different opportunities such as careers. By offering free language and citizenship tutoring, it will open up numerous opportunities for immigrants and help them assimilate smoothly into society.
Regarding the role of policymakers, it is crucial to have “policies that are created with the participation of the people that they affect and with an understanding of the issues,” says professor Birman. She continues to point out the flaws in the legislative process in which “It is very hard to fully appreciate what the issues are and what the needs are when policies are created by people who are not immigrants.” Therefore, in order to demographically represent the population, the voices and concerns of immigrants need to be heard in the legislative process, so that legislators may implement laws that value and respect the human beings who would be directly impacted.
The first priority is to acknowledge which policies are put forth that have a possibility of harming immigrants. “The point of the government is to protect immigrants, not to harm them. That has not been true for about 20 years,” said Santos. For example, children are separated from their parents under the adoption of the “zero tolerance” policy by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Additionally, under former President Barack Obama, mass deportation reached its highest level ever. Therefore, Santos stressed, “the first and foremost thing to do is stop deliberately harming immigrants.”
Assimilation is always challenging due to the cultural adjustment, discrimination, and the costly naturalization process. Nevertheless, it’s also possible when there is an effort to create systemic change in the immigration and naturalization processes, which will not only give immigrants the opportunity to fully integrate into America but also to dismantle their worries and improve their mental health. Instead of applying prejudice and discrimination toward this marginalized group, we should come together and help them, such as by providing language support, citizenship tutoring, and mental health services. The assimilation process takes time, so be willing to lend a hand to immigrants when they need help.