Immigrants and refugees: fostering understanding about dislocated populations

To respond to recommendations related to the report “Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture,” APA’s Board of Directors developed a list of recommended actions. Among other actions, the board recommended the Education Directorate “promote a focus on human rights and ethics as a core element of psychology education and training from high school through continuing education offerings.” The following article by Jovan Hernandez, PhD, is the third of a series of articles related to human rights and ethics.

The current political climate in the United States has renewed focus on immigration, and the Syrian conflict, which continues to make news headlines, has created millions of refugees that countries are struggling to support. Dislocated populations such as immigrants and refugees have traditionally been overlooked in introductory psychology courses. Students often hold preconceived notions about these groups, and introducing dislocated populations into these courses can offer students a more holistic perspective.

The Census Bureau (2016) defines an immigrant as any person who is not a natural-born citizen. It is estimated the U.S. has about 41 million immigrants, 11 million of whom the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates are undocumented (Census Bureau, 2016; Migration Policy Institute, 2016). Immigrants, generally, are people who have voluntarily chosen to leave their country of origin and pursue different opportunities in the new country.

In contrast, refugees are individuals who have been forced to flee their country of origin. Refugees may be forced to flee for a variety of reasons, including wartime conflict or persecution related to ethnic/racial background, religion, political beliefs or being a member of a persecuted social group. According to the U.S. Department of State (2016), 69,993 refugees were admitted to the U.S. in fiscal year 2015. Over the past three years, the U.S. has capped the number of refugees at 70,000. The U.S. also places limits on the number of refugees from different geographic regions (e.g., 20,400 from African countries).

Human rights

Immigrants and refugees may be the victims of human rights violations in their country of origin, yet they may also experience violations of their human rights upon migrating to the new host country. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution in 1997 forming a work group whose goal was to examine the “increasing manifestations of racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination … against migrants.” In a subsequent article written by the chair of that work group, Bustamante (2002) argues there is a commonly held belief that immigrants should not be afforded the same rights as native-born persons. It reasons that prejudicial beliefs such as these may contribute to discrimination against immigrants and refugees. Discussing human rights in the classroom may be one way to make students aware of these prejudices.

Classroom exercises

Conversations on immigration and refugees can be challenging for students, and inherent biases often surface during these conversations. Prior to engaging in these difficult dialogues, I have students practice active listening skills and empathy training to maintain a civil discourse and promote understanding.

As students discuss topics they are passionate about, the desire to be heard can overcome their ability to listen to their fellow students. Simple exercises can improve basic listening skills, such as reflection and summarizing. For example, first, I have students pair up, with each person sharing a short story about a recent joyful or sad experience. Their partner then offers reflection, in their own words, of both the story details, any feelings the person expressed and a short two to three sentence summary of the story. The original story teller then provides brief feedback on how well their partner listened and conveyed understanding of the story. The partners then reverse roles.

In addition to listening skills, empathy is a valuable tool in achieving understanding of others. The Southern Poverty Law Center (2016) offers a brief empathy training and “yes or no” exercise, a five-item self-assessment students can use to reflect on their levels of empathy. The questions are:

  • “I often think about other people’s feelings.”
  • “I don’t make fun of other people because I can imagine what it feels like to be in their shoes.”
  • “I listen to others about what they’re going through.”
  • “I try to understand other people’s point of view.”
  • “I am aware that not everyone reacts to situations the same way I do.”

As students learn and reflect on these skills, they can apply them to small-group discussions about immigrants and refugees.

Fostering a social justice orientation

While classroom discussions can be helpful for students, working with dislocated populations can offer more impactful learning experiences, as students become agents of social change. One simple way for instructors to help students develop a social justice orientation is through service learning activities. (For further reading, a special issue of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology® (Vol. 34) assembles a series of articles on “Psychology and Social Justice.” See also two articles on service learning in psychology in this issue of PTN.)

Many introductory psychology courses require a research participation requirement or comparable alternative. An alternative assignment could be a service learning and reflection activity. It is beneficial for instructors to identify a handful of appropriate service organizations ahead of time for which students can volunteer (it is important that students work alongside immigrants or refugees rather than performing tasks that do not place them in direct contact). A reflective component that includes structured prompts prior to the conclusion of the service learning activity can add meaning to this experience. Sample prompts include “How did your interactions with dislocated individual(s) confirm or refute any preconceived notions you may have had?” or “How are people within that group different from each other?” Upon completing the service activity, students can submit a written reflection or do a classroom presentation of their experiences.

In conclusion, as student demographics are becoming increasingly diverse, incorporating information on immigrants and refugees and their experiences can foster greater tolerance and understanding.

Re-posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s Psychology Teacher Network 


Bustamante, J.A. (2002). Immigrants’ vulnerability as subjects of human rights. International Migration Review, 36, 333-354. doi: 10.1111/j.1747-7379.2002.tb00084.x.

Census Bureau. (2016). American community survey [Data file]. Retrieved from

Migration Policy Institute. (2016). Unauthorized immigrant populations profiles. Retrieved from

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2016). Developing empathy: High school. Retrieved from

United Nations Commission on Human Rights. (1997, April 13). Migrants and human rights. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of State. (2016). FY15 refugee admissions statistics [Data file]. Retrieved from

About the Author

Jovan Hernandez is an assistant professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He earned his doctoral degree in counseling psychology from the University of Iowa. His academic and professional interests are in the areas of multiculturalism and discrimination.