The FAMCare Blog

How Social Workers See It

Posted by GVT Admin on Apr 24, 2024 10:45:00 AM

Social workers and immigration

Immigrant and refugee rights have long been an issue of critical importance for social workers in the United States. Over 100 years ago, Jane Addams and Edith Abbott established social work as a noble profession while working in settlement houses that served as centers of residence and social services for migrants who had recently arrived in large numbers to work in America. Charitable organizations and religious and ethnic associations have long worked to facilitate the wellbeing and integration of migrants and displaced persons.


The collapse of fragile South and Central American democracies in countries like Venezuela, Brazil, Haiti, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras has caused hundreds of thousands of immigrants to flee to the U.S. This unprecedented flow of people across our southern border feels like an "invasion" to many and is causing political turmoil. Each side blames the other for ineffective border security and immigration policies. Both agree, however, that something must be done.

Social Workers Caught in the Middle

Social workers labor on both ends of the social service spectrum.

  • From the very beginning, social workers have advocated in the halls of power for the human rights of our marginalized population. They lobby congress for changes in public policy and teach in universities about dignity, humanity, kindness, and generosity for the poor and needy.
  • On the other end of the social conscious spectrum social workers are hands-on in the field working side by side with the homeless, the elderly, orphans, single mothers, veterans, addicts, and abused children to provide basic human needs like food, shelter and mental and emotional support.
  • The former are sworn to advocate on behalf of the basic human rights of the marginalized and needy.
  • The latter are performing a concrete act of human kindness that needs no mental justification.

The social work profession straddles these two distinct functions and often finds itself somehow caught in the middle.

How Social Workers See It

We asked social workers we correspond with how they see this double-edged sword their profession wields. Here's what they had to say:

SW#1 - "This political debate over immigration is getting ugly and we're caught in the middle. The poor people pouring over our southern border are simply trying to save their children from violence and corruption and could only think to run away to what they see as safety. But, of course, criminals see an opportunity to take advantage of the vulnerable and hide among the throng of frightened and desperate refugees. Now, what was a humanitarian issue quickly becomes a security issue and confusion and fear grows in the minds and hearts of even right-thinking American citizens. Social workers, who are sworn to support the human rights of the marginalized, are caught in the middle. There is no easy answer."

SW#2 - “Here's the problem. The social work profession calls for a ‘balance between security and human rights’ in current immigrant and refugee policies. The NASW maintains that such a balance must be considered in policies that define admission criteria into the U.S. for migrants, delineate deportable offenses, and establish grounds for detention and surveillance. Now, if you think that's an easy balance to conceptualize and maintain, then I have some waterfront property in Arizona to sell you."

SW#3 - "When people fleeing oppression cross our border illegally, they become criminals in our social order and are the business of the border security officials sworn to maintain orderly national borders. However, once they're in the country they are simply vulnerable human beings, often women and children, who had no criminal intent but, of course, retain their god given right to life. It is our job as an intelligent, humane society to distinguish between a cry for help and a criminal offense. We have not resolved the confusion on this issue yet, but despite the rancor that has developed, I believe that both sides are trying to solve a thorny problem that our country did not create."

SW#4 - "It depends on who you're talking about. Social workers in the field take one approach primarily providing immediate services, while social workers in Universities and Government Agencies should advocate for humanitarian lawmaking. Our code of ethics states that social workers must 'pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people'. So, we're in the thick of things just by the nature of our chosen profession."

The NASW recognizes that immigrant and refugee policy is driven by competing values within the themes of human rights, humanitarianism, national security, and economics. But human rights are the bottom line.


Topics: what social workers do, immigration

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