Role of Social Workers With Respect to Undocumented Immigrants Essay

Excerpt from Essay :

social issue that I want to discuss is that of illegal immigration, particularly where it pertains to families. Undocumented migrants face numerous social and legal challenges in America, but first and foremost they are human beings, and they are only here to seek a better life. Yet, the conditions under which they come are often trying. Many are virtual slaves, others struggle with the lack of access to public services, housing, and employment. In many instances there are children involved. There is also an element of social advocacy with respect to this issue --one need not look any further than protests in the past year or two in border states that targeted undocumented children to see how vulnerable this population is. Politically, the issue of undocumented immigrants might be highly-charged, but for the field of social work it is a human issue. These are people, after all, and the challenges that they face are enormous. Social workers, as advocates for the disadvantaged, are in a unique position to offer not only direct help for this vulnerable class but also to advocate on their behalf, to attempt to make life better for them.

The Issues Faced

Undocumented immigrants arrive in the United States with only the thinnest veneer of rights, and almost no privileges. They face challenges immediately, because they are not legally able to pursue work. There are additional challenges with respect to access to housing, health care and education, much less any form of social assistance. Some of these barriers are structural in nature, a product of the political system, but that does not lessen the challenges. The social worker is primarily concerned with helping people manage the challenges that they face, and the undocumented face significant challenges with respect to integrating themselves into American society. Often, the social worker only becomes aware of these challenges after they manifest into larger problems, and this brings about ethical dilemmas with regards to helping people, or upholding the law.

The Role of the Social Worker

The role of the social worker in society is to help people during times of crisis. Undocumented immigrants are, by virtue of their legal status, more vulnerable than many other groups in the American population. Inherently, they lack access to many other resources that are critical to help them get through times of crisis. Social workers have long played a role in supporting, and advocating for immigrants of all types, and undocumented immigrants are one of the most at-risk classes of immigrants, and therefore are the subject of considerable effort on the part of the social work profession (Furman, et al., 2012).

In addition to providing help during times of crisis, social workers also play a critical role in advocacy for at-risk groups. Social workers are in a position, on the front lines, to have unique understanding of the issues that such at-risk groups face. The feedback that they get from their clients provides critical insight. Social workers therefore have the obligation to share this knowledge, in ways that can help to influence both public opinion and public policy. The social work profession, because of its close contact with undocumented communities, has insights that can contribute significantly to policy changes that can benefit the lives of undocumented immigrants.

Furman et al. (2012) note that there is considerable urgency in the current political climate to fulfill the advocacy role, given the number of anti-immigrant laws and proposals that are being enacted, primarily at the state level. The authors note that this urgency exist on many levels. At the micro level, there are specific policies that directly affect individuals. At the mezzo level, there is the general thrust of laws, and at the macro level there is a need to change the entire climate of rhetoric that exists with respect to undocumented immigrants. Social changes such as globalization are creating imperative for stronger public policies that protect immigrant rights, but more importantly treat immigrants as human beings rather than as nuisances.

The role of the social worker is particularly challenged because undocumented communities have less access to social services and resources. Such access is important, but is often unavailable due to legal reasons. As a consequence, undocumented families are more at-risk than immigrant families with papers, and the fact that even getting access to social workers is more difficult only makes such challenges all the more difficult. Where there can be an ethical dilemma here is with respect to the potential diversion of resources from one group to another -- social workers may be faced with situations where funding is only available to cover the needs of those with legal status, something that challenge to a significant degree the ability to serve the needs of everybody in the community, especially where there are many undocumented migrants falling into high-risk groups and in need of the intervention of a social worker.

Criminalization and Ethics

One of the major threads in the relationship between undocumented immigrants and social workers is the question of the criminalization -- or worse trial in the court of public opinion -- of migrants to the United States. The social work profession, first and foremost, has no particular need to worry about the immigration status of people in need. However, immigration status is related to need, because a lack of legal status creates greater risk for individuals and greater barriers for getting help. This is especially tragic where families are concerned, and frequently it is women and families, the most vulnerable, who suffer the effects of anti-immigrant social views and public policies. When children are shut out of schools, this sort of punitive measure only destroys an entire generation, for example, so the criminalization of undocumented immigrants is a critical human rights issue.

The reality is that when one is classed as illegal, that implies criminality, something that is far from the truth. Most undocumented migrants are anything but criminals, despite the connotation. That connotation, however, contributes to negative public opinions that render racism normative and allow for the passage of punitive laws that effectively criminalize the existence of someone simply on the basis of their immigration status, even if they have never harmed anyone in their lives and only want to help their families (Cleaveland, 2010).

For social workers, the ethics of the situation must be guided by the needs of the client. The ethical guidelines of the National Association of Social Workers make clear that social workers play a critical role in advocacy for at-risk populations. This means that they are obligated to view any issues from the perspective of the client, and that social workers do not bear responsibility to, for example, enforce immigration law. If anything, social workers are obligated to promote the issues that their clients face, to seek to lower the legal barriers that the clients face.

The ethical obligation for the social work profession is therefore to put the interests of the client first, and advocate for change where necessary. When there are oppressive policies being put into place, one of the roles for social workers is to stand up for their clients and fight those policies. Social workers have the knowledge and insight to provide evidence that can be used to shape policies that help people, or at the very least do not harm them. This is a role that the profession will need to perform with increasing regularity given the current social and political climate, which in some areas is toxic towards undocumented immigrants, making their hard lives even harder (Furman, 2012).

Going Forward

It appears that there is considerable political momentum that will only make the task of helping people more difficult going forward. There are considerable issues with respect to immigrant children, such as those arriving without parents, and to families. Immigrant women, some of whom are being used as sexual slaves, are criminalized under current policy when it is they themselves who are the victims. Such policies are destructive, are not based on evidence, and ultimately harm families and the innocent. Social activism is one of the tenets of the NASW ethical code, and it appears that in future there will need to be even greater dedication to the task of social activism in order to potentially turn back the tide, roll back the negative laws, and change the public perceptions that allow such laws to exist in the first place.

It can be challenging to coordinate such a response when social workers are a disparate group, and often overworked. Yet, there is a professional, ethical obligation to help. There are ways, such as making sure that critical stories are heard, or organizing media and public relations efforts on key issues, to ensure that those without strong voices can have their voices heard. This is a difficult task, but a rewarding one, and there is considerable need right now for more social advocacy in one's duties as they relate to the plight of children and families who are among the undocumented immigrants.…

Sources Used in Document:


Cleaveland, C. (2010). We are not criminals: Social work advocacy and unauthorized migrants. Social Work. Vol. 55 (1) 74-81.

Furman, R., Ackerman, A., Loya, M., Jones, S. & Negi, N. (2012). The criminalization of immigration: Value conflicts for the social work profession. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare. Vol. 39 (1) 169-185.

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