A Qualitative Study of Immigration Policy and Practice Dilemmas for Social Work Students

By Furman, Rich; Langer, Carol L. et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

A Qualitative Study of Immigration Policy and Practice Dilemmas for Social Work Students


Furman, Rich, Langer, Carol L., Sanchez, Thomas Wayne, Negi, Nalini Junko, Journal of Social Work Education


SOCIAL POLICY PROVIDES a key context in which social work practice occurs (van Wormer, 1997). Social policies (a) lead to structural arrangements within society by which social work services are provided and (b) set limits on social work's role and function in agency settings. Consequently, significant practice dilemmas may arise from various policies and how they are implemented in actual agency practice (Reamer, 1993). For example, the privatization of mental health services has created numerous dilemmas for clinical social workers who must balance the service needs of clients with organizational demands that often place sharp limits on expenditures (Furman, 2003; Furman, Downey, & Jackson, 2004).

The purpose of this study was to explore potential practice dilemmas that a recent proposed immigration policy may present to social work students. To do so, we questioned social work students about their potential actions regarding a proposed immigration policy in Arizona, which would require social workers to deny services to undocumented persons. Before the presentation of the research method, findings, discussions, and implications, we explore immigration policies, trends, and influences and the social service context of providing social work services to Latinos. This exploration provides a rationale for the study and places the research within a wider social-historical context.

Migration Policy and Services to Latinos

The context of immigration to the United States is often misunderstood. Too often, migration is viewed as a voluntary movement of people from one country to another. Subsequently, social policy considerations that do not frame the historical and political roots of the immigration of Latin Americans perpetuate a pattern of blaming the most vulnerable and oppressed populations. A historical-political analysis of the migratory patterns of those who emigrate from Latin America demonstrates that the policy decisions and political forces of the United States are highly implicated in the social forces that lead to migration. For example, from the 1950s through the 1980s, the United States provided fiscal and political backing to repressive governments that systematically violated the human rights of people throughout Central America. In Guatemala, for example, the Central Intelligence Agency was actively involved in the overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Jacob Arbenz. The political changes resulted in the death and disappearance of over 200,000 Guatemalans over the next several decades (May, 2001; Warren, 1994; Wilkinson, 2002) and the creation of social and economic forces that led to the migration of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans to the United States and Mexico. Similarly, American support of oppressive regimes in El Salvador led to mass migration during the 1970s and 1980s (LaFaber, 1991). Millar (2004) aptly explored compelling relationships among various social factors that impact potential migrants:

   The pulling effect of U.S. political freedom,
   economic prosperity and educational
   advancement are matched by
   the push of unjust persecution and
   financial stagnation in the home countries.
   These perpetuations of the image
   of the "American Dream" are undermined
   by the thought of refugees
   arriving by the thousands who are
   fleeing violent regimes that are both
   openly and covertly supported by the
   United States. (p. 49)

In addition to providing support to repressive regimes, the United States has supported a program of neoliberalism through international fiscal organizations that have caused seismic shifts in the economic structures of Latin American countries (Murillo, 2001). Although a complete exploration of the socioeconomic program of neoliberalism is beyond the scope of this article, Walton's (2004) two-part definition helped clarify the concept:

   There are at least two ways in which
   neoliberalism is commonly used: a
   narrow usage, that refers to a shift in a
   subset of policies to a greater reliance
   on markets; and, a broader usage, that
   implies a wholesale change in the relationship
   between the state and society,
   with a more vigorous embrace of the
   market being part of a generalized
   withdrawal of state provisioning and
   action. … 

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