Academic journal article Social Work

Our Nation's Immigrants in Peril: An Urgent Call to Social Workers

Academic journal article Social Work

Our Nation's Immigrants in Peril: An Urgent Call to Social Workers

Article excerpt

Social workers have always been at the forefront of work with immigrants. From our profession's earliest days working with immigrants at the Hull House in Chicago to the current immigration debate, our commitment to social justice has driven both our service and policy positions regarding immigration. Our values have not changed, neither have some of the more divisive and destructive aspects of the immigration debate. Historically a nation created by immigrants seeking respect for individual freedoms, the United States has a history of anti-immigrant rhetoric and public policies criminalizing immigrants or viewing them as a threat to U.S. security. The same themes that were raised in the 1800s are being raised today, but now with a focus on Latino immigrants and under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Since March 2003, the functions of the Immigration and Naturalization Service were transferred to the new DHS as three bureaus: Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Following immigration protests in May 2006, DHS and ICE have increased their raids, arrests, and deportations, creating a hostile climate for all immigrants regardless of their legal status and making undocumented immigrants, their families, and communities especially vulnerable.

Given the heated debate on immigration, it would seem that the United States would have extremely high numbers of immigrants. In fact, only 11.7 percent of the current population is foreign born (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004), and of them 30 percent are naturalized citizens (Passel, Capps, & Fix, 2004). Children in immigrant families make up 20 percent of U.S. children, and four-fifths of them were born in the United States and are therefore citizens. Although people from all nationalities immigrate to the United States, the majority of immigrants are from Latin America. In fact, more than 53 percent of all foreign-born individuals are from Latin American countries, primarily Mexico (U.S. Census Bureau). Between 80 percent and 85 percent of the immigrants from Mexico initially enter the country as undocumented immigrants (Passel, 2005). It is this undocumented population that has led to controversial state and federal proposals.

NATIONWIDE PROPOSALS

Across the country, state legislatures and localities are grappling with immigrant policy. In 2007, more than 1,400 bills were filed addressing immigrant policy at the state level (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2007). Much of the state legislation has focused on increasing employer sanctions and denying public benefits on the basis of immigration status. In Texas, a bill was filed that would deny public benefits, such as state health insurance, to children born in the United States to undocumented immigrants. Arizona passed legislation to create harsh employer sanctions for businesses who hire undocumented workers. We believe both these bills are an attack on the Latino populations in these states. In addition to state legislation, the attack on immigrants has also surfaced within local communities. A suburb of Dallas, Texas, voted to prohibit landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, who are primarily Latino in that area. When municipalities have moved to create local ordinances offering rights or protections to immigrants regardless of status, such as New Haven, Connecticut's, creation of a municipal card for city services or Chelsea, Massachusetts's, passing of a Sanctuary ordinance, ICE raids and detentions have immediately increased.

Perhaps the most prominent debate over the past several years has occurred at the federal level. Ignited by fears of terrorism, immigration proposals have been considered that fail to balance security concerns with respect for constitutional protections, human rights, or equality. In 2005, Congress passed the Border Protection Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act, which would have made it a crime to assist undocumented immigrants. …

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