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Speak Up and Speak Out: Why Psychologists Should Take Up John Lewis’ Call for Immigration Refo

Congressman John Lewis

By Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD, ABPP (2011 Past-President of the American Psychological Association)

“You must speak up, you must speak out, you must get in the way.”

These were the impassioned words spoken by Congressman John Lewis (D-GA) after receiving a Presidential Citation from APA President Nadine Kaslow, PhD, urging psychologists to become involved in the movement to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

“There’s too many people, too many of our sisters and brothers, young people, young children…living in fear. That’s not healthy,” said Lewis. “That can do not only damage to the soul but also the mind and the body. As a nation and a people we can do better, we can do much better.”

If there’s anybody who knows something about speaking up and getting in the way, it is Congressman Lewis. After all, this is the same tireless civil rights icon who marched side-by-side with Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights Movement; the same person who on March 7, 1965 led the march in Selma, Alabama, which many historians have credited with providing the momentum to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

By his own admission, the Congressman has been arrested in an act of civil disobedience more than 45 times. Despite sustaining numerous physical attacks and threats of violence, he remains a committed activist of the nonviolence philosophy. His most recent arrest came in October of last year while advocating for Congress to reform our nation’s immigration laws, which he believes has become one of the defining civil rights struggles of the modern era.

I agree with Congressman Lewis and applaud his commitment to civil rights. As the former President of APA, and the first woman of color to hold the position, it was not always an easy decision to pursue my three Presidential Initiatives on psychology, diversity and social justice:

I knew there would be a contingent of APA members that preferred that the association stay away from these controversial topics. But I did not become a psychologist to understand human behavior and then hold onto that information while I observed society at a distance.

Simply put, the contributions being made by psychologists are too relevant to ongoing social concerns not try to bridge the “disconnect” between research and public policy in order to:

  1. help others understand the psychological factors related to the immigrant experience; and

  2. contribute to decision-making on immigration policies.

I am proud these task force reports have helped pave the way for APA to be proactive in advocating for the needs of immigrant communities and other underserved groups.

Some of APA’s efforts on immigration have included:

  1. Submitting congressional testimony on the recent surge of unaccompanied minors;

  2. Providing letters of support for key provisions in the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill; and

  3. Organizing a congressional symposium and Capitol Hill visits.

I believe psychologists should take Rep. Lewis’ remarks to heart and speak up, speak out, and get in the way in the struggle for comprehensive immigration reform. We must do more to debunk myths and stereotypes and improve the lives of the immigrants.

Related resources:


Melba J. T. Vasquez received her doctorate from the scientist-practitioner counseling psychology program at the University of Texas at Austin in 1978. She is an independent practitioner in Austin. Her areas of scholarship are ethics, multicultural psychotherapy, psychology of women, supervision and training. She has provided leadership service to the profession of psychology for three decades.

Dr. Vasquez served as president of the American Psychological Association in 2011. She has also served on the APA Board of Directors and in various roles in APA governance, including as member or chair of a dozen APA boards, committees and task forces. She is co-author of three books, including “Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling” (Pope & Vasquez), “How to Survive and Thrive as a Therapist” (Pope & Vasquez), and “APA Ethics Code Commentary and Case Illustrations” (2010, Campbell, Vasquez, Behnke & Kinscherff). She has written more than 65 journal articles and book chapters, and served on the editorial boards of 10 journals. She is the recipient of over 30 awards for distinguished service, advocacy and mentoring.

Image source: Flickr (U.S. Department of Labor) via Creative Commons

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