Academic journal article Social Work

"We Are Not Criminals": Social Work Advocacy and Unauthorized Migrants

Academic journal article Social Work

"We Are Not Criminals": Social Work Advocacy and Unauthorized Migrants

Article excerpt

An estimated 9.3 million unauthorized migrants now work in the United States (Passel, Capps, & Fix, 2004), taking unskilled jobs at low wages and prompting some lawmakers to call for tougher law enforcement or for measures to restrict access to health care and humanitarian assistance (Hancock, 2007). In what follows, I present empirical evidence of efforts by unauthorized Mexican migrants in one suburban town to contest the characterization of their presence as "illegal" or "criminal," negative labels that they believe are hindering their ability to support themselves and their families. This study will inform social work's advocacy on behalf of this population at national, state, and local levels.

This examination is crucial for social work in settings in which practitioners will encounter migrants. The terms "illegal immigrant" and "illegal alien" clearly connote criminal status and thus, without scrutiny, could dissuade social workers from understanding the circumstances faced by individuals who enter the United States without authorization (Furman, Langer, Sanchez, & Negi, 2007; Hancock, 2007). Workers who see unauthorized migrants as criminals could feel less empathy for and be disinclined to engage with this population (Furman et al., 2007). Understanding how members of disadvantaged groups perceive themselves, rather than accepting characterizations from popular discourse, is a critical element of culturally competent practice (Lum, 2007).

This study is particularly timely given the debate over illegal immigration in the United States. The data here are from a two-year exploratory study of Mexican migration that explored several aspects of this issue, including the vicissitudes of day labor (Cleaveland, 2008; Cleaveland & Kelly, in press) and migrant narratives of resistance to counter maltreatment (Cleaveland, 2008). I present empirical documentation of efforts by Mexican migrants in Freehold, New Jersey, to contest negative characterizations of undocumented immigrants as "criminals" or "illegal" and to distance themselves from criminal behavior. These strategies have become critical given recent efforts by some local governments to escalate the level of criminality ascribed to this group (Jonas, 2006).

Mexican men were found to present discursive narratives designed to contest the term "illegal" because they feared it contributed to racial discrimination and made them potential targets for hate crimes. Mexicans did not interpret their designation as "illegal immigrants" with the moral authority or legitimacy that might compel compliance with the nation's immigration laws or with local anti-immigration statutes (Ryo, 2006). Instead, Mexicans interviewed challenged this categorization. Furthermore, they argued that migrant labor supports the U.S. economy and is critical to their families' survival.

Data were gathered in Freehold, a borough of 11,000 that has become a destination for undocumented workers, many of whom are Mexican. Migrants began arriving just before 2000 to work in New Jersey's construction boom. Now, men gather on sidewalks and in parking lots, hoping to be hired by contractors or homeowners. Some wait for prospective employers on a 50-yard stretch of gravel known to day laborers as las vias (the railroad tracks). In December 2003, Freehold banned day laborers from gathering on this land, which sits adjacent to abandoned railroad tracks. That was followed by a federal injunction forcing the town to reopen this land. In spring and summer, las vias serves as pickup point for from 50 to 75 migrants daily. This legal fight, and the controversy over whether migrants should have the right to work and reside in communities or to receive social services, is one of many in a patchwork of legal battles that have erupted nationally (Jonas, 2006).

Though the presence of unauthorized immigrants has drawn notice from lawmakers and media, social work faces a knowledge deficit regarding how to access this population and provide services to immigrants (Furman & Negi, 2007; Martinez-Brawley & Gualda, 2006). …

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