How Social Work is Responding to the Immigration Crisis in the US

We are in the midst of a refugee and immigration crisis in the United States. In 2019, we had a record number of people —76,000 adults, families, and unaccompanied minors—cross the southern border each month . The crisis is at the border, in immigration and refugee policy, and in towns and cities across this country where long-time U.S. residents live in fear of being deported.  Social workers can and do play key roles in addressing the immigration and refugee crisis.

Those crossing the border do so for a number of urgent reasons including poverty and hunger, gang violence—including the forced recruitment of minors into gangs— and violence against women and families. The vast majority of refugees and migrants who cross the southern border originate from three countries in Central American – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Known as the northern triangle, this region is one of the most violent on earth. Ravaged by a history of civil and political conflict and deep poverty, citizens of these countries often perceive no other choice than to flee for their lives.

Addressing poverty in the northern triangle

Social workers have an important role to play in understanding and trying to change conditions in migrants’ home countries. One of the major issues forcing families and unaccompanied minors to flee the northern triangle countries is the recruitment of children into gangs against their will. Deep poverty and conflict have contributed to these countries becoming breeding grounds for infamously brutal gangs such MS-13. These countries’ economic problems are due in part to climate change, lack of development, and government corruption. Social workers can advocate for international policies that help address conditions in this region. For example, in the past, U.S. policies encouraging economic development in the northern triangle countries and southern Mexico have sought to improve help stem the mass migrations.

Addressing violence against women

Social workers can also get involved in addressing violence against women in the northern triangle countries. In Guatemala, there is widespread impunity for those who commit violent acts against women. This means that the legal system and government fails to hold perpetrators legally accountable for violence and murder against women (often referred to as femicide when women are murdered with impunity). Social workers have worked with international human rights groups and local women’s rights organization in the northern triangle countries to help address this epidemic of violence against women. Social workers working in international human rights or who who have personal ties to these countries can advocate for political, cultural, and social change that will help stem the tide of violence against women in this region.

Supporting refugees

Social workers also are involved in addressing the plight of those who are trying to claim refugee status. There is political and legal disagreement about which Central American migrants should be able to claim refugee status. Under President Trump changes have been made to refugee laws. For example, the administration has made it more difficult for those fleeing poverty, gangs, and domestic violence to claim refugee status. One argument is that a migrant should only be granted refugee status if they are fleeing political persecution or war; some argue citizens of these countries are essentially fleeing a state of war-like lawlessness. Women’s rights advocates have argued that women fleeing violence should be considered members of a persecuted minority. Social workers can advocate for better refugee laws and policies including increasing the number of courts, lawyers, and judges at the border to process the overwhelming number of refugee claims.

Fighting inhumane conditions and family separation

Social workers are also involved in addressing the situation migrants find themselves in on the Mexican side of the border. The Trump administration has convinced Mexico to agree to hold large numbers of migrants on the Mexican side of the border and to not let them cross in the U.S.; but the conditions migrants are being held in on that side are inhumane. People have been held in large holding areas for weeks or months at a time in unsanitary and crowded conditions. Many children and adults have also fallen victim to gang predation on that side of the border.

In the U.S. holding conditions for migrants have also been inhumane. Children have been separated from their parents and kept in metal cage like holding pens. Parents have lost track of their children and have had to put significant resources and efforts into getting them back. Social workers urged the administration to change their family separation policy and have helped separated families reunite. They also have been involved in placing children in temporary foster care while they wait to be reunited with family.

Social workers also protest the inhumane conditions at the border which have included holding adults and children for prolonged periods in cramped, unsanitary conditions, not providing enough food and water, and not allowing migrants to take care of their personal hygiene. They can also work on improving the training and credentialing of staff who work in migrant shelters and camps. They may also serve as supervisors in these settings or on the frontlines as caseworkers making a difference in the lives of individuals and families in crisis.

Advocacy work

Social workers also are deeply involved in advocacy efforts as staff members of nonprofit organizations that serve migrants, immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and refugees. Social workers may educate undocumented immigrants about their legal rights, how to respond to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and how navigate immigration laws. They may help clients find services, child care, work, and benefits and provide therapeutic services to traumatize children, families, and adults.. One prominent organization located at the border that is doing vital immigrant advocacy work is RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services). Bilingual social workers are especially needed to work in the communities most affected by the immigration and refugee crisis.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has issued statements on the administration’s immigration policies and lobbied Congress to resist changes to immigrant benefits and services. To get involved in working with those affected by the immigration crisis contact a local immigrant advocacy organization or NASW chapter. With gridlock in Washington there is no widescale solution to the immigration crisis in sight, and social workers continue to be in great demand to help vulnerable individuals and work toward policy change.

Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero

B.A. Political Science| Vassar College

M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware

School Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program

September  2019

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