Immigration is again a polarizing political debate with forgotten human beings caught in the middle. It doesn't matter which side of the debate you're on, the fact remains there are approximately 2 million undocumented immigrants younger than 24 existing in limbo in the United States. This largely innocent population is made more vulnerable by a divisive debate that intensifies the risk of deportation and reduces access to resources and support. Social workers consider it their principled responsibility to support the vulnerable at all levels in society, so parties on either side of the so-called “open borders” debate leave it to social workers to do what they can to help the people caught in the middle.
History Tells Its Tale
Immigrant and refugee rights have long been an issue of critical importance to social workers in the United States. Those considered pioneers in the field, such as Jane Addams, developed their expertise 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. In 1889, Addams founded the world-famous social settlement Hull-House on Chicago's Near West Side in the middle of a densely populated urban neighborhood peopled by Italian, Irish, German, Greek, Bohemian, and Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants.
Caught In the Middle
Today, however, the toxic immigration policy debate has poisoned the well, making humanitarian efforts by social workers on behalf of undocumented immigrants complex to say the least. The NASW describes this relationship between legislation and social service provision in a policy statement:
"Often, social workers’ capacity to assist clients is constrained by immigration policies, especially policies that limit family visitation and family reunification. Immigration policies intervene in social work practice when family offenses become grounds for deportation and thereby impede willingness to report."
- For many immigrants, refugees, and children of migrants, reporting issues such as employer exploitation, domestic violence, and child abuse to social service and law enforcement agencies become potentially deportable offenses rather than opportunities to seek justice and healing.
- The consequences of reaching out for help from state institutions can be devastating for mixed status families, potentially culminating in the separation of family members.
- An even more acrimonious aspect of the immigration debate is the subject of what should be done with those who find themselves classified as “undocumented”. Among this group are children and young people, who are in this position through no fault of their own.
- Undocumented students and families are not typically eligible for state and federal benefits. Therefore, it is imperative that social workers understand this and not direct this population to apply for services for which they are ineligible. Applying for these benefits can unintentionally leave them exposed to investigation and deportation.
Social Workers Will Not Be Dissuaded
The political environment that allowed the birth of social work on behalf of the immigrant population during the era of Jane Addams may be in the rearview mirror, but the social work community's dedication to support the survival efforts of the world's migrant populations remains robust, even if somewhat nuanced in the current political environment. Social workers must tread carefully in order to help and do no harm.
- Beginning with evaluating their own possible bias, social workers must not withhold information and services because of beliefs that undocumented students are undeserving.
- Without explicit permission, social workers must not disclose the status of students to anyone. One of the greatest fears of undocumented students is deportation and separation from family.
- Social workers must be aware of the resources available through private organizations, such as TheDream.US, and direct their immigrant clients to private appropriate services.
- Social workers can deepen their effective commitment to immigrants and refugees by mobilizing resources through non-government organizations and social service agencies.
- Immigrant and refugee agencies can bring components of community building and political education into English as a Second Language classes, naturalization workshops, and after-school programs. In this way, social workers would be facilitating the gathering of people facing similar challenges in their communities and workplaces and providing them with the space and information to develop their own capacity to create social and political change.
Social workers will not be dissuaded by the current toxic political environment. There is work to do.
If you want to learn more about the dedicated work preformed by social workers, please visit what social workers do in the FAMCare blog.