Faculty Proceedings, Presentations, Speeches and Lectures


Risk and Protective Factors of Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors

Event Title

2019 NPLA (National Latinx Psychological Association) Conference

Event Location

Miami, Florida, USA

Document Type


Presentation Date


Date Range

2019-10-17 to 2019-10-20

Conference Name / Publication Title

2019 NPLA (National Latinx Psychological Association) Conference


Past literature reviews have documented the traumatic circumstances that lead unaccompanied minors to flee their home countries including dangerous and abusive situations. Along their journey, unaccompanied children experience numerous stressors that increase their risk of mental health problems. The current literature review is being conducted to assess these risk and protective factors for unaccompanied immigrant youth and to discuss what this means for clinicians working with this population. A search was conducted to explore the risk and protective factors linked to mental health for refugee populations, including unaccompanied immigrant minors (UIM) coming to the United States from Central America. Databases, such as PsychINFO and PsycARTICLES, were used to search the literature using the following terms: “unaccompanied immigrant minor”, “unaccompanied refugee minor”, “risk factor”, “protective factor”, among others. The search yielded about 13 studies that included two policy reports, four literature reviews, and seven qualitative studies. Beyond traumatic experiences, the mental health of unaccompanied immigrant minors is influenced by unique encounters that can best be understood in the context of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1977). Within the microsystem, family separation, housing placement, and school disruption warrant attention when working with UIMs. According to Rusch and Reyes (2012), 70% of the participants in this study experienced parental separation for an average of 3.27 years during the familial serial migration process, and separation was significantly related to acculturation stress, depression, and poor family functioning. Placement within a foster home, as opposed to large-scale housing, can help UIMs build a social support network that provides a sense of safety and helps them to become competent in a new culture (Oppedial and Idsoe, 2015). Social support is essential for UIMs to learn a new language and integrate into a new life, including integration into the school system and extracurricular activities, connecting to religious institutions and seeking out any medical or mental health care needed. Macrosystems include shifting laws and policies and cultural climate, which can contribute to unpredictability in the United States. Relatedly, institutional discrimination can influence how UIMs adjust to their new life in the U.S. Indeed, immigration policy, housing policy and the cultural context in which immigrants are received are related to the safety and well-being of UIMs, including mental and physical health.

Professionals working with UIMs should be educated about UIM’s strengths and needs and how these can be influenced by macrosystemic issues. To support this, Vera Institute of Justice found that many professionals react with suspicion and confusion when working with UIMs, which can lead professionals to incorrectly handle their needs by repeatedly transferring cases that they might otherwise feel competent in handling. This literature review attempts to clarify some of the issues facing UIMs in the hopes of informing culturally competent services for them.