The social work community must put the political debate aside and confront the moral and ethical questions that illegal immigration imposes on the profession.
“It is not our job or responsibility to determine how to control our borders,” one experienced social worker said. “The fact is that millions of immigrants have gotten into our country without legal status and have brought little children with them. They may not be U.S. citizens and are not entitled to citizen’s benefits, but they are human beings and are entitled to humane treatment and that is where social work comes in. Social workers have sworn to protect and support the vulnerable and at the same time uphold and defend the laws of the United States. It’s easy to see how well-meaning social workers might struggle with the moral and ethical dilemma presented by illegal immigrants.”
Where does humane treatment end and citizen’s benefits and privileges begin?
That is the “turn around” question for all social workers tasked with relieving the human misery that afflicts so many illegal immigrants. Our inability to clearly draw that line of demarcation is what has led to the acrimonious political debate that is raging in our country. Even the most conservative citizens do not believe we should let illegal immigrants starve to death, but they disagree with affording them rights to higher education, social security benefits, or extensive medical care. So, the question remains, where does humane treatment end and taxpayer benefits begin?
“This debate is not solely between social workers and the public at large; social workers are having this debate among themselves. We’re desperately trying to figure out how far to go. No clear laws have ever been written to delineate the boundaries of humane treatment. For the most part, it’s a matter of judgement. This, of course, leads to disagreement even in the social work community,” one social worker said.
Solution in Principle
Thought leaders in the social work community are diligently working to define the ethical guidelines and professional boundaries that govern the assistance that social workers provide undocumented immigrants. There are obvious minimum standards of humane treatment that social workers must ethically adhere to:
- Intervene in all life and death situations
- Provide emergency shelter from the elements
- Emergency medical care
- Food for the hungry
- Family integrity
- Care for orphaned children
- Preventing harm to the mentally ill
Social workers must be agnostic about any fellow human being’s legal status. However, in their natural zeal to help the vulnerable they must avoid crossing the legal lines that have been established defining citizenship and the privileges that pertain.
- Do not shelter illegal immigrants from detection by immigration authorities - (In fact, social workers have a duty to turn illegal immigrants over to the proper authorities after providing emergency services).
- Illegal immigrants are not eligible for any social welfare services that American citizens are entitled to. It is not ethical for social workers to help illegal immigrants find employment, seek advanced medical care, or afford themselves higher educational opportunities.
It’s A Matter of Time
Most policy makers agree on the following litmus test for social workers when working with illegal immigrants:
Is the aid provided for relief from immediate harm or support for a better future?
Most social workers provide services to U.S. citizens and therefore focus on helping the vulnerable find a path to a better life. This is the well-meaning social worker’s natural work environment. The undocumented, however, are not U.S. citizens nor are they legal temporary residents of our country. They are, in fact, engaged in an illegal act, and it would be equally illegal to assist them in the endeavor. For social workers it would also be unethical.
No Easy Task
The heart often disagrees with the mind. We here at GVT offer our every support to the army of social workers walking the emotional and ethical tight rope strung across the vast field of immigrants fleeing violence in the unstable countries of Latin America.