Public outrage over
the presence in the United
States of a growing number of undocumented immigrants has led to legislative efforts that
are largely punitive in nature toward this population. Never mind that the motive behind this drive, I believe, is politically
divisive in nature, as it detracts from more contentious issues such the War on Iraq and long ignored domestic problems such
as the lack of health insurance for a substantial proportion of our populace. Sadly, the firestorm of illegal immigration
has been ignited and will burn brightly for some time to come with plenty of victims being caught up in the blaze.
Carolina, where I live and teach, undocumented immigrants now constitute about a half of the 600,000
Latino immigrants residing in the state. The majority of these are Mexicans living in family units whose members have migrated
in stages coming directly from rural Mexico or who have moved
here from urban areas of the Southwest to escape unemployment, run down neighborhoods and overcrowded schools. Many of these
immigrant families include children born in Mexico, as well
as younger members born as U.S. citizens. This is a demographic
profile not unlike that found in other states throughout the predominantly rural regions of the Southeast and Midwest
where the Latino immigrant population especially has burgeoned in the last decade.
These days, in the
little country stores where my grandson and I go in search of our favorite candy, the Mexican immigrants who shop there appear
frightened when I approach them to ask in Spanish how they are getting along. My Spanish is not great but not all that bad
either after living in Mexico from 1996 to 2002. So I can’t
conclude the problem is in my bilingual language skills. Even a year ago, whether in K Mart in southeast Raleigh
or the little country stores that dot the rural area in which I live, chance encounters with immigrant men and women were
easier to expand into conversations about their experiences with life in the United States.
Now I often see anxious and closed or averted faces of people who are trying to be invisible.
On the professional
side of this equation, social workers are growing increasingly anxious for this population, as well. Proposed federal laws
that would make illegal status a felony as well as turn social workers and other service delivery professionals into “immigration
police” are frightening prospects. At the state level, more immigrants are being denied drivers’ licenses and
facing tighter restrictions on access to higher education. In North Carolina,
“Immigrant Activists”, an organization promoted by the border watching Arizona
based Minutemen, is exerting public pressure against local businesses that hire people without proper documentation. On the local scene, growing numbers of communities in different parts of the country
are enacting laws that, in essence, are removing the welcome mat with ordinances, for example, that make it unlawful for landlords
to rent to immigrants who are in the country illegally. Clearly these are moves and movements that threaten the well being
of immigrant lives and the social contract between our society and the steady stream of immigrants that traditionally have
contributed to the greatness of America.
workers historically have been concerned with helping immigrants make the transition into American society. Our profession’s
commitment to human rights and social justice place upon social workers an ethical obligation to advocate for undocumented
immigrants who are being exploited for political purposes. A major form of this exploitation is the depiction in the media,
such as in political campaign ads, of undocumented immigrants as either a threat to our national security or to the economic
well being of U.S. citizens. An unhealthy byproduct of these
media images is the entrenchment of discriminatory practices that deny immigrants opportunities to contribute productively
to our society and to raise healthy families. Given these clear and present dangers for undocumented residents and the concerns
of social workers for this population, I would like to discuss how we can advance the cause of undocumented Latino immigrants
in the current negative political and social climate.
the basic fact that illegal immigrants are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, which is a given
for social workers, how can we help improve the situation of undocumented immigrants in our midst? I will discuss briefly
four points that I think are essential for social workers in advocating effectively for this population.
Know the Truth - Share the Facts
Our country needs
immigrants and our economy and global pressures tend to “pull” undocumented immigrants toward the United
States. One basic tenet that often goes ignored in discussions and debates on immigration
is that our country requires a constant flow of incoming immigrants to help fuel local economies and fill our labor markets
or we face stagnation due to the aging boomers. Undocumented immigrants who are settling in rural communities and small towns,
where there has been real decline in the numbers of working age citizens, are revitalizing these areas. In a recent speech,
Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, estimated that the U.S.
requires an influx of 3.5 million immigrants annually to meet the labor market demands versus the 1.5 million that currently
are entering the U.S. each year. In September of this year,
the United States fell from first to sixth place on a global
competitiveness index as ranked by the World Economic Forum. A major reason given for this decline is the decrease in the
pool of talent that results when excessive restrictions are placed on immigration.
Although it is true
that many Latino immigrants are poor and come to the U.S. with few skills, a more open door policy would allow for the development
of potential talent in these and subsequent generations of immigrants. For example, we need to work to change educational
policies that require talented young undocumented immigrant women and men to pay out of state tuition in order to be educated
in community colleges and state universities.
As a social work
educator I particularly am concerned with the integration of content on Latino immigrants in the BSW curriculum so students
are well informed about the facts as well as the rhetoric surrounding undocumented immigration. In addition, future generalist
practitioners need to be familiar with policies and laws shaping unjust institutional outcomes, as well as how to undertake
cause advocacy on behalf of undocumented immigrants. Students also need to learn how to design and implement justice-based
interventions at micro, mezzo and macro levels of practice for this population.
Immigration Issues Are Human Rights Concerns
have human rights that transcend borders (including fences) and citizenship requirements. Social workers have a professional
obligation to equate the unjust treatment of undocumented immigrants with the violation of their human rights. Today the ways
in which the human rights of undocumented immigrants are being undermined and the extent to which their human needs are being
denied should be a matter of great importance to the social work profession, individual practitioners who work with immigrant
clients and educators who prepare students for practice with this population.
Some of the rights
of undocumented immigrants are protected under the Constitution and U. S.
law but are frequently violated such as the denial of workers’ compensation for the treatment of job related injuries
and lost wages due to injury. Other violations of human rights may be legalized ways of treating illegal immigrants in inhumane
ways such as deporting undocumented adults who are parents of minor legal citizens or laws under consideration that would
make it illegal for service providers to assist undocumented immigrants. Immigrant children born in the U.S.
should have the assurance that an undocumented parent will be available to care for them. Undocumented immigrants should be
able to approach hospitals, schools, alcohol treatment programs and other public services without fear of recrimination.
immigrants require access to the tools of our culture that are fundamental to personal and family success including education,
credit, driver licenses, insurance, health care and adequate wages. Immigrant women, in particular, who have access to these
resources, often are able to achieve levels of personal development not available to them in the culture of origin while contributing
to family well-being and stability. Access to the tools of the culture that is benefiting from one’s labor is a human
rights issue. Social workers need to uphold the human rights of illegal immigrants by advocating for laws and policies that
support their position as human beings who are contributing value and worth to their families, our economy and to our society.
We should view the protection of the human rights of undocumented immigrants as synonymous with enhancing their well being
and increasing their adaptive capacities.
The Meaning of Illegal Status as a Social Construction
Some people who are otherwise sympathetic
to the idea of immigration balk at the idea of accepting undocumented residents in our presence because they are here “illegally.”
On the other hand, in North Carolina, it is illegal for unmarried couples to
cohabitate and I would not venture to guess how many upstanding citizens are breaking the law as I write this article but
I imagine it is a significant percentage of the adult population. The point I am trying to make here is that the very way
we might judge the seriousness or legitimacy of a particular “illegality” is often dependent on what we have been
told or read or had interpreted for us by others. In other words, how people respond to the undocumented aspect of immigration
is “socially constructed.” Furthermore, dominant groups typically have the advantage of assigning meaning to the
social and legal situations of less powerful others and often do this in a negative way to protect their dominant advantage.
The negative meaning
attached to illegal status has become such a critical determinant of an immigrant’s opportunities that those who are
here without legal standing are in a different and much less advantageous category than those with legal standing. Consequently,
social workers need to recognize legal status as a social structure, like race/ethnicity, social class and gender, and one
that has a profound effect on people’s lives. Subordinate membership in these intersecting structural categories renders
certain groups of people, such as undocumented immigrants, highly vulnerable to oppression and institutional discrimination.
This perspective helps to explain, for example, why single parent families headed by Latino undocumented immigrant women are
the poorest of all racial and ethnic groups.
Social workers should articulate
clearly the nature and consequences of these unjust structural dynamics in our classrooms, our professional literature and
in the general public. As an aspect of these discussions, social workers need to offer a new vision of the “social contract”
between undocumented immigrants and our society. This vision should be based on a renegotiation of the meaning of “illegal
status” in order to contest the negative and controlling ways in which undocumented immigrants are viewed. A new vision
would include the considerable strengths and contributions of immigrants despite multiple disadvantages and the obligation
of society to acknowledge and appreciate how our society benefits from their labor.
A United Front
In order to be an
effective political force in advancing the rights of undocumented immigrants, we need to be a united force. Elvira Craig de
Silva, President of NASW, has encouraged social workers to be an active part of the political debate and decision making about
immigration status and rights. In a February 2006 NASW Newsletter, de Silva reminds us that social workers were an important
influence on the withdrawal of the provision in the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act that would require social workers to obtain
immigration status information from families seeking emergency medical services. Working through our local, state and national
chapters of NASW and other professional organizations, we can make a difference if we are united and speak with a single voice.
Undocumented immigrants stand on the
margins of society suspended by laws in the making that will determine their fates as temporary guest workers, felons or legal
citizens of the United States. Much is weighing in the balance.
Social workers need to support the human rights of this population to be treated with dignity and self-determination. Working
together, in an informed manner, we can help to ensure that undocumented immigrants have the resources and tools required
for achieving individual success and strong families.