The Role of an Immigration Social Worker and Its Challenges
A social worker for immigrants adopts many responsibilities, including finding housing, employment, and other resources. However, immigration laws, legal status, and local prejudice can complicate the process.
Immigration social workers ensure that immigrants have everything they need to pursue the American dream, including access to health care and their community. However, even the slightest mistake could separate vulnerable families or impair their well-being, so you must understand your most significant responsibilities and challenges before taking on each case.
How Many Immigrant Communities Are in the US?
It's impossible to determine the exact number of immigrants in the U.S. However, according to a 2021 study, nearly 45 million immigrants may live in the country, accounting for 14% of the population. Of that number, more than 2.5 million immigrants are children. In short, immigrant communities are all around us, and they’re a vital aspect of our country.
Nearly 25% of U.S. immigrants were originally from Mexico, with India, China, the Philippines, and El Salvador being popular countries of origin as well. Many immigrant social workers become fluent in Spanish and other languages to provide the best possible services.
5 Essential Roles of Immigration Social Workers
An immigration social worker's roles vary by client, as some may have an easier time transitioning than others. However, most cases require you to oversee resettlement, finances, legal issues, community resources, and well-being.
Below are the five essential roles of a social worker working with immigrants.
1. Coordinate Family Resettlement and Transition
First, an immigration social worker oversees the family's transition to their new home. This step focuses on finding and transitioning into dependable housing that meets the family's needs. Social workers should advocate for their clients throughout the resettlement process. For example, if the family rents an apartment, read over the lease yourself to ensure the landlord fulfills their end of the bargain and that the family understands their expectations.
Additionally, every neighborhood requires a bit of a transition, but some may be too much for immigrant children or families who are unfamiliar with the local culture. Social workers should ensure the family knows about all local laws and resources, such as the nearest grocery store, bus stop, and public health facilities. Furthermore, the social worker should regularly check in on the family's transition and help them find alternatives as needed.
2. Secure Financial and Material Resources
Another key responsibility is finding appropriate financial solutions for your clients' success and health. This often consists of identifying employment opportunities that align with their skills, experience, and goals. The right job may set them on a path to financial independence and provide them access to health care.
Every client's case varies based on their skills, experience, and education, so there's no universal process for setting immigrants up with jobs. Consider their employment history in their country of origin combined with online and local opportunities. You should also consider their immigration status, as some jobs have restrictions on undocumented immigrants.
Beyond employment, many resources are available to immigrants, often depending on their situation. One such resource is the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP). This nonprofit offers recommendations to low-income individuals and communities, including immigrants facing financial insecurity. Additionally, immigrant students can often find federal financial aid to help with their education.
3. Provide Access to Community Resources
Local resources can help families integrate into their new community in various ways. Depending on the family's needs, you can look for cultural orientation and language classes — many are available at local colleges. Even if they already partially understand English or the local culture, these sessions can help your clients avoid language barriers for a smoother transition.
Local classes and resources also help immigrant families get involved in the community. Families from vulnerable populations may feel uncomfortable integrating with the public right away. However, recommending community events will help them dip their toes into public life and hopefully make a few friends.
4. Assess Legal Status and Connect Clients With Counsel
Immigrant social workers are also responsible for determining the status of authorized and unauthorized immigrants — which includes staying up to date on immigration laws. Many family reunification cases involve individuals with varying immigration statuses, which can complicate the process. Mixed-status families may require you to make tough, fast decisions, especially when working with green card laws or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In many cases, your responsibility involves only connecting clients with legal counsel. An expert in immigration law will handle their status issues more directly, as your services should not include explicit legal advice.
5. Advocate for the Well-Being and Safety of Immigrant Families
As the name suggests, immigrant advocacy is the core of immigration social work. Even outside of language and housing barriers, immigrant families face difficulties accessing transportation, medical services, and safe places to raise children. Prejudice, discrimination, political turmoil, and various other factors can impact your clients' safety and well-being— fortunately, they have you.
Your most significant responsibility is to advocate for your clients and step in when you feel they may be unsafe. Even if rehousing, community classes, and other steps seem unnecessary to the clients or your supervisor, you must advocate for immigrants' needs nonetheless. Many cases may require you to work with clients one on one to help them transition and adequately assess their needs.
3 Challenges in the Immigration Social Work Profession
Supporting immigrants isn't always as easy as social workers would like it to be. Challenges such as changing policies, ethical dilemmas, and personal factors can complicate your job if you aren't prepared.
1. Immigration Policies
Strict and often-changing immigration laws create serious dilemmas for many social workers. Ongoing economic and national security debates may shift laws and your best responses to clients. For example, the relatively new "zero-tolerance policy" results in criminal charges for undocumented immigrants who previously would have received a misdemeanor.
Staying up to date with immigration laws is already a challenge. However, it gets more complicated when you have to quickly implement these rules into your case management plan. Additionally, you must ensure your clients stay up to date with their applicable laws — or else they may violate them, which can affect their immigration status.
2. Mixed-Status Families
According to studies, more than 10 million U.S. citizens may live with an undocumented immigrant or in a mixed-status family. Mixed-status cases may limit available resources, job opportunities, and housing opportunities. Additionally, you may be required to report undocumented immigrants, depending on your state and local laws.
Providing excellent, error-free services to immigrants in mixed-status families is crucial to ensure you don't separate loved ones. Always research applicable laws and restrictions, and consult dependable immigrant lawyers in your network. The more you practice with immigrants, the easier it may be to respond to mixed-status complications.
3. Constraints and Dual Pressures
As discussed, immigration social services frequently require case managers to balance their professional duties and personal beliefs, values, and relationships. This is especially true when you’re working with family separation, refugee populations, and other complex cases.
Changing laws create some of the most prominent ethical dilemmas when you’re working with immigrants. On one hand, you are required to follow all federal, state, local, and organizational rules when working with undocumented immigrants. On the other hand, America's immigration responses have sometimes been connected to human rights violations. Additionally, extreme scenarios may give clients nowhere safe to go if deported.
So you may have to search, negotiate, and network to provide clients with the best possible service. In other cases, no solutions may meet your professional duties and personal beliefs.
What Resources Can Social Workers Access to Help Immigrants?
The resources you search for will depend on your client's needs and what's available in their area. Consider the following immigration resources:
- Language and cultural orientation classes
- Health care facilities
- Medicaid and other health care options
- Transportation options, such as bus tickets and routes
- Legal services
- Refugee assistance programs
- Housing assistance programs
- Nonprofit financial aid
Additionally, social workers should invest in continuing education and other resources to improve the quality of their services. For instance, while you can always refer clients to an immigrant lawyer, you should still thoroughly understand immigration laws yourself. Discuss with your supervisor and others in your network what immigration and social worker skills you should improve upon.