In U.S. society, immigrants of all classes continue to be one of the most oppressed and marginalized groups due to structural disadvantages perpetuated by an immigration system that lacks an understanding of the global politics compelling migration patterns and fail to recognize the basic human rights of persons not born on U.S. soil. The knowledge of practicing effective social work with immigrants becomes vital.
As frontline workers seeking to empower members of vulnerable sects of society and rectify systemic injustices, social workers are highly likely to come into contact with immigrant clients in any arena of practice.
View the Immigrant Status Series:
Why Social Work with Immigrants is Important
It is a social worker’s imperative with immigrant clients, as with any other client, to connect these individuals with the services and programs available to best meet their needs.
Because eligibility laws often exclude certain classes of immigrants from access to programs and services, social workers are confronted with unique challenges when practicing social work with immigrants, especially if the practitioner is not knowledgeable about the various classifications of immigrants living in the U.S.
It is an ethical imperative for social workers to inform themselves of immigrant status types and their associated rights in order to best serve these client groups and protect them from the potentially serious consequences of applying for programs for which they are legally ineligible.
The following guide is intended to assist social work practitioners in building their knowledge about the various status types of immigrants living in the United States.
It is important to remember that immigrants are a very diverse population, and more often than not, immigrant families are made up of individuals of varying immigration statuses (referred to as mixed-status households).
Social workers should also keep in mind the wide range of diversity that exists within each status group, as every individual immigration story is different, and there are a variety of paths through which to arrive at any particular immigrant status.
Undocumented immigrants are those individuals who do not enjoy legal status in the United States because they arrived in the U.S. without legal inspection. These individuals are legally referred to as “illegal aliens” or “illegal immigrants.”
Technically, being “undocumented” means that one does not have immigrant status in the United States. An estimated 11 million individuals living in the U.S. are undocumented.
Some entered the U.S. with legal documentation and inspection, but overstayed visas, others were brought to the U.S. by their parents at a very young age. Some have lived in the U.S. most of their lives, while others might have recently made the dangerous journey across the border undetected.
The Effects of Living as an Undocumented Immigrant
Undocumented immigrants often live “in the shadows,” making great efforts to ensure that undocumented status is not detected by their workplace, children’s school, neighbors, friends, etc, as they are at constant risk for deportation.
Many undocumented immigrants have spouses, children, or other family members who are U.S. citizens and might be on waiting lists for family visas or other forms of immigration status.
However, while living in the United States without immigrant status, they are one of the most vulnerable groups because of the constant threat of deportation, causing them to often be exploited by employers and others who are aware of their lack of status.
Undocumented immigrants who are deported face a ten-year-bar for legal re-entry; any immigrant who remains on U.S. soil for even one day without status is subject to this bar, meaning there are no legal options for them to return to the United States for a period of ten years.
Many undocumented persons have falsified identification documents that allow them to work or attend school. Some universities and professions do not allow undocumented persons to register, and undocumented persons are generally not eligible for any federal public benefits or healthcare, with the exception of undocumented minors in some states.
Undocumented persons with U.S. citizen children may, however, apply for federal public benefits on behalf of their children. Undocumented persons can, and often do, obtain Tax Payer Identification Numbers (ITIN), and pay taxes, but do not have the right to collect social security upon retirement.
How to Effectively Practice Social Work with Immigrants
Undocumented status can have serious impacts on mental health, trust in authorities, and identity formation, due to systemic issues undocumented immigrants routinely face, such as racial profiling, ongoing discrimination, forcible separation from family members, immigration raids, placement in detention camps or child welfare facilities, deportation, and constant anxiety and fear.
If a client chooses to disclose his/her undocumented status, this information should be treated with the utmost confidentiality and care.
The next part of this series provides information on various forms of immigration relief for which undocumented immigrants might be eligible.
View the Immigrant Status Series:
American Psychological Association. Undocumented Americans [Internet]. Washington (DC): American Psychological Association; 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 28]. Available from
Bray, I. Who is an Undocumented Immigrant? [Internet]. Berkeley (CA): Nolo; 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 28]. Available from
Healthcare.gov. Health coverage for immigrants [Internet]. Baltimore )MD: US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 28]. Available from
Juarez, C, DeLeon, N. Undocumented and uninsured: health access and program eligibility [Internet]. Los Angeles (CA): UCLA Labor Center Dream Resource Center; 2016 [cited 2016 Apr 28]. Available from
United States Department of Agriculture. Supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP): SNAP policy on non-citizen eligibility [Internet]. Washington (DC): USA.gov; 2016 Mar 11 [cited 2016 Apr 28]. Available from