BPD Update Online, Winter 2007
Combating the Fear: Fulfilling Social Work's Ethical Obligation to Undocumented Immigrants
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Tina Hancock,
North Carolina State University at Raleigh

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.


In North 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.


Social 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. 


Beyond acknowledging 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


Undocumented immigrants 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.


Undocumented 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.


Concluding Remark


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

Another article on immigration is on the next page...

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

BPD Update Online, Volume 29, No. 1, Winter, 2007

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

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