This guide is all about how to become an immigration social worker. It turns out that immigration social work is as old as the social work profession itself.
Social work in the United States began in the nineteenth century working with immigrants and others living in poverty in settlement halls, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). These homes served as not only residences, but provided a place for the residents to find employment, medical care, education, and other services they needed to begin a transition to living successful lives in the United States.
Then as now, many immigrants found themselves facing poverty upon arrival in this country. These social work pioneers, and those who followed, believed that addressing all of the root causes of poverty would help their clients build success moving forward. The social work profession grew out of this framework. In a very real sense all social work is an outgrowth of immigration social work.
Immigration social work today
Although the social work profession grew out of working with immigrants, today the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) does not recognize immigration social work as a distinct discipline. There is no certification, and there are few social work job titles that are specifically designated as immigration social workers. Yet there are social workers everywhere who work with immigrants either as the main focus of their job, or on a regular basis based on the type of work that they do.
Social workers are uniquely trained with the skills to assist refugees and immigrants in the myriad of issues they face. As we treat our client as a whole person, looking at how all the facets of their lives intersect and impact each other, through a systems framework, social workers can help immigrants and refugees create a network that lessens the likelihood of things falling through the cracks.
We see our clients as whole people, we recognize their strengths and help build on those at times when society at large, and even our clients themselves may be hard pressed to find them. Our capacity for empathy and our strengths based perspective shine through, our tenacity and capacity to find the good not only in our clients but also in the organizations we partner with and those who work there.
Here are just a few of the skills a social worker will use in working with immigrant and refugee clients:
- Case management
- Information and referral
- Legal referral
- Medical social work
- Employment training, placement, and assistance
- Government assistance
- Green card application
- Mental health
- Community organizing
- Crisis intervention
- Community resettlement
- Child welfare
- Family systems
There are many places that might have a need for an immigration social worker. Any place that someone might turn for help could attract someone new to this country who needs assistance. So any social service organization might have a social worker position dedicated to working with immigrants or refugees, or all social workers might just have some training to recognize the needs when they arise. Some of these places include:
- Community centers
- Law offices
- Government agencies
- Non-government organizations
- Legal aid
- Food pantries
What about refugees?
We often see the terms immigrant and refugee used to mean the same thing. However, there are some very distinct differences between the two terms. Per the International Rescue Committee (IRC), “An immigrant is someone who makes a conscious decision to leave his or her home and move to a foreign country with the intention of settling there.”
Usually we think of an immigrant as someone who is leaving their country looking for a better life. This may be in the form of education, job opportunity, quality of life in terms of financial opportunities, health, housing, or some other measure.
A refugee, on the other hand, is defined by the IRC as, “…someone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution, often without warning.”
In a very real sense, their life and safety, or the life and safety of their families may be in serious danger if they remain at home. They come to another country, our country, to ask for our protection.
Social workers who work with refugees should have specialized training in working with people who experience trauma. Refugees will face special challenges because there may be more difficulty in accessing the resources from their country of origin to provide proof of identity. Often there will be a distrust of the government, and even of those agency professionals, including social workers, who are trying to help them. Working with refugees requires compassion and strength. Often the strongest skill a social worker will need is advocacy.
Social workers are drawn to this field because we want to help people. We want to make the world a better, safer place for the people who come to us for help. Yet there is a danger that we can experience second hand trauma and that can get in the way of our work. It is therefore critical that social workers take care of ourselves so that we can continue to take care of others.
Today, the US is experiencing an influx of refugees and the need for our services is overwhelming. Social workers will be playing a critical role in helping our fellow human beings find their way with compassion and competence. They will be coming to us with very little in the way of material goods, financial support, and many times a strong language barrier. They will need assistance in all the areas you can imagine. Social workers have an obligation to take care of ourselves so that we may remain strong enough to take care of others.
How to become an immigration/refugee social worker
To become a social worker you must have a degree in social work. There are three levels of degree:
According to scholars.org, many social work students report feeling unprepared to work with immigrant and refugee populations. With this knowledge in mind, there are a few things you can look for in a program that can help you feel better prepared. You can look for a program that already has a specialization in working with immigrants and refugees. You can look for a program that offers some courses that prepare you to work with these populations. You can plan to advocate for change when you enter the program.
Look for courses including:
- Immigration and refugee policy
- Cultural Competence
- Critical policy analysis
- Immigrant and refugee advocacy
- Trauma and the refugee experience
- Legal issues facing immigrants and refugees
Another thing you can do as a student is to look for interdisciplinary training. If you are able to, try to take classes from another area, for example through the law school, that address the needs of immigrants and refugees. This can give you a deeper understanding of some of the tools available, as well as introduce you to a network that may prove valuable in your professional practice.
If you are considering work on the macro policy level, you may want to consider a dual degree as well. Some to consider would be an MSW/Master’s of public administration MSW/MPA, MSW/Masters of business administration, MSW/MBA, MSW/Master’s of public health MSW/MPH, or an MSW/Law degree MSW/JD program.
Immigration social work careers
The first image that comes to mind when thinking of an immigration social worker may be a caseworker. Indeed a caseworker may be the first person a refugee encounters on the front lines once they arrive in this country.
Once they complete that process, however, refugees and immigrants will often be receiving services at the same agencies. At this point, it will be up to the individual agencies to decide whether their caseworkers will specialize in working with immigrants or refugees and their unique needs, or if they will work with each client as they arrive.
There are many other ways that social workers can work with immigrants and refugees. These include:
- Community organizer
- Nonprofit director
- NGO director
- Public relations
- Humanitarian aid
- Program coordinator
Another way that social workers can make an impact is on the policy level. At a masters level (MSW) and above (PhD or DSW), social workers can find themselves able to make change at a policy level by working in leadership positions at nonprofit agencies, government agencies or NGO’s, or even running for office on the local, state, or national level.
If you are thinking that you might want to pursue getting involved on a policy level, you might want to consider pursuing a dual degree in law, public policy, public administration, public health, or even business.
Career outlook for immigration social workers
In 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the median annual wage for the social work profession as a whole was $51,760, with the lowest ten percent earning less than $33,020, and the highest ten percent earning more than $85,820. The BLS projects job growth for social workers to increase 13 percent between 2019 to 2029, much faster than the four percent average for all occupations.
Ziprecruiter reports that in August 2021, the average annual salary for a refugee caseworker was $40,466 a year, with a low of $13,000 and a high of $62,000. These positions reflect all caseworker positions, not just those that require a social work degree.
For an immigration caseworker, Ziprecruiter reports that as of August 2021 the average annual salary was $47,466, with a low of $19,500 and a high of $113,000. Again, these listings reflect all caseworker positions, not only those requiring a social work degree.