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.In this guide
- How to become a immigration sw
- What is a immigration social worker
- What do immigration sw do
- Salary and outlook
Social work in the United States began in the nineteenth century working with immigrants and others living in poverty in settlement houses, 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 simply because the client that came in for services happens to be an immigrant. Today 14 percent of the US population are immigrants and one-in-four children in the public school system are part of an immigrant family, which means there are very few social workers who will not work with immigrants.
Social workers are uniquely trained with the skills to assist immigrants and refugees with 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:
- Networking with other support agencies
- Language skills
- Problem solving
- Case management
- Legal referral
- Providing information on norms and customs in the United States
- Creativity in finding access to transportation
- Medical social work and referrals to free and/or reduced cost medical services
- Employment training, placement, and assistance
- Applying for government assistance
- Green card application
- Obtaining documentation from countries around the world
- Identify/provide culturally appropriate mental health care
- Advocacy for clients and the immigrant community in general
- Community organizing
- Crisis intervention
- Navigate family systems and different goals in terms of integration
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:
- Hospitals and community health centers
- Schools and tutoring programs
- Community centers
- Law offices and legal aid nonprofits
- Food pantries
- Mentoring programs
- Public libraries
What is the difference between immigrants and 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 UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
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 seek protection.
Social workers who work with refugees should have specialized training in working with people who experience trauma. Because of the persecution faced, and the journey to the United States, research shows that about 19 to 54 percent of refugee children have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 14 to 19 percent of adult refugees, as compared with only 2 to 9 percent of the general population also have PTSD. Despite higher rates of trauma, there are often cultural nuances that make immigrants and refugees less likely to seek traditional mental health services and so social workers may need to be creative and utilize art therapy programs, sports programs, pastoral counseling, or mentoring as alternatives.
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. Additionally, 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 the strongest skill a social worker will need is advocacy to help clients access to services and at the macro level to improve conditions for immigrants and refugees across the US.
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 they will have significant language barriers. 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:
- Bachelor of social work (BSW)
- Master of social work (MSW)
- Doctor of social work or doctor of philosophy in social work (DSW or PhD)
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, perhaps starting with asking professors to bring more examples of working with immigrants and refugees into the classroom.
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. Lastly, upon graduation you can seek out conference and continuing education trainings that focus on working with immigrants and refugees.
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
If you are interested in working with immigrants and refugees exclusively, the best places to look for employment are agencies that specialize in this population. Many communities have refugee resettlement agencies and a the federal government’s Office of Refugee Resettlement maintains a list by state. Additionally, many communities have community based organizations that state in their mission statement or agency title that they work with immigrants, or even a specific group of immigrants (e.g. Burmese American Community Institute, Hispanic Center, Immigrant Development Center, Latino Outreach Center, etc.)
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.
However, immigrants and refugees receive services at the same agencies as other clients (such as schools, housing services, counseling, etc). 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. Social workers with language skills may want to consider a career as a bilingual clinical/therapist, as this is a constant need.
There are many other ways that social workers can work with immigrants and refugees. These include:
- Community organizer
- Nonprofit director/NGO director
- Public relations and outreach work
- 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 2021, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the median annual wage for the social work profession as a whole was $50,390, with the lowest ten percent earning less than $36,520, and the highest ten percent earning more than $82,840. The BLS projects job growth for social workers to increase 10 percent between 2021 to 2031, much faster than the four percent average for all occupations.
Ziprecruiter reports that as of 2023, the average annual salary for a refugee caseworker was $43,871 a year, with a low of $18,000 and a high of $84,000. These positions reflect all caseworker positions, not just those that require a social work degree.
For an immigration caseworker, Ziprecruiter reports that as of 2023, the average annual salary was $47,881, with a low of $21,000 and a high of $103,500. Again, these listings reflect all caseworker positions, not only those requiring a social work degree.
Frequently asked questions
An immigration social worker is a professional who provides support and assistance to individuals and families who are going through the process of immigrating to a new country.
They assist individuals and families who are immigrating to a new country by providing counseling, advocacy, and other forms of support to help them adjust to their new surroundings.
A Bachelor’s degree will provide you with the foundational knowledge and skills while Master’s can help you specialize in immigration social work and increase your job prospects. Obtain licenses and/or certifications after earning your degree since most states requires it.
With increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees seeking to enter and settle in countries around the world, the need for skilled and compassionate social workers who can provide support and guidance throughout the immigration process is greater than ever.
They should be knowledgeable of immigration laws and policies and have a deep understanding and respect for different cultures and the ability to communicate effectively with people from diverse backgrounds.