BPD Update Online, Winter 2007
Editor's Prerogative
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Carol J. Williams, Editor

by Carol J. Williams


Immigration and Social Work

The Wikipedia describes immigration as “movement of people from one nation-state to another where they are not citizens.  [Immigration] implies long-term permanent residence (and often eventual citizenship) by the immigrants” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration, accessed 1/28/07).  The United States has long been seen as a nation of immigrants, both voluntary and involuntary.  In fact, our country continues to have the highest number of immigrants of any country in the world, 39,000,000. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration, accessed 1/28/07).  However, these immigrants represent only 13% of the overall US population of 296,410,404 (www.census.gov, accessed 1/28/07).  By contrast, several countries in the Persian Gulf have populations that are 80% to 90% immigrants.  Viewed in this light, the United States has far less than its fair share of immigrants.


What are the reasons that people give for immigrating?  The most frequent reasons are to find employment, to escape poverty, and to gain higher wages.  People also immigrate to escape natural disasters, to retire in a better climate with a lower cost of living, and to escape oppression.  What are the reasons that people oppose immigration?  The reasons are very similar:  to maintain their current standard of living as well as to assure jobs at a decent wage for current residents.


Any discussion of immigration is likely to generate a heated debate between those who favor open borders on the basis of social justice and those who oppose immigration as a means of protecting jobs and wages for current residents.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration, accessed 1/28/07).  As social workers who embrace the value of social and economic justice, we are likely to favor immigration.  However, making a simple statement that our borders should be more open is insufficient. 


Immigration as an issue is one of the key issues on which our profession was built.  We have only to return to the work of Jane Addams, as described in Twenty Years at Hull House, to recall the central role that services to immigrants have played in the evolution of our profession.  New immigrants require an extensive array of services if they are to truly integrate into our society and find a life that is better than the life they left in their country of origin.


Jane Addams and her peers faced a scenario that was, in many ways, easier to address than the issues we face today.  In that era, there were many unskilled jobs, and it was possible to obtain employment readily, even with limited English proficiency. 


Today, those unskilled jobs have largely disappeared, with the exception of day labor opportunities at minimum wage or day labor.  Such jobs, even if new immigrants can find them legally, do not pay well enough to provide the worker with a decent standard of living.  They are dead-end jobs that offer limited or no benefits to those employed. 


Today, a college education is required to obtain most jobs, and the demand for higher and higher levels of education and training is continuing.  In many cases, as in our profession, a graduate degree is becoming a requirement as well.  Thus when we think about services to immigrants today, the education that they require is not simply skills to read and write.  It is access to secondary and higher education.  Social work as a profession must advocate for the services and resources that will not only allow immigrants to cross over our boarders.  There is also an obligation to provide supports, as Jane Addams did, and to assure that there are, once again, entry level rungs on the career ladder and ways for new immigrants to reach to those first rungs and beyond.

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Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

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

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

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