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Strategies for Helping the Children of Immigrant Families in the Wake of Discrimination

Racism and discrimination have been ongoing issues for centuries, but the ways society addresses these concerns have certainly changed dramatically since the middle of the 20th century. Although there is no argument to be made against the assertion that the United States has come a long way in the past 60 years, there remains a palpable presence of racism and discrimination against minorities and immigrants today.

When it comes to immigrant families, issues have intensified over the past decade in the United States and many nations abroad. Trends and progressive movements like the globalization of markets and economies, an ever-increasing rate of expatriation and immigration, qualms between entire nations or regions, and others are certainly playing a role in the continued presence of racism and discrimination.

Social workers will play a vital role in the fight to support and elevate immigrant families, especially the children therein who are not old enough to truly understand what is fueling the discrimination they face. However, to be truly prepared for the tasks at hand, social workers will need to have a very deep and comprehensive understanding of the full spectrum of moving parts involved, including immigration itself, why discrimination occurs, what it feels and looks like it and much more.

A look ahead at immigration

Pew Research offers the following data on immigration in the United States as it stands today, and how it will evolve in the coming decades:

  • Immigration capitol: America is already home to an estimated 59 million immigrants, and is expected to no longer possess a racial majority by the year 2055
  • Millennials rising: More than 40 percent of millennials are not white, making this population the most diverse of its kind and also the one that will soon comprise the majority of the population
  • Origins: Individuals from Latin America currently represent the largest portion of new immigrants to the United States, standing at 47 percent in 2015. However, by 2065, Hispanic families will only represent 31 percent of all new immigrants, compared to 38 percent among Asian nations

At the same time, there is a growing sense of nationalism and populism in the United States that has appeared to peak following the presidential election. These two movements are directly opposed to immigration in general, with those who follow this line of thinking often acting in discriminatory fashions, especially against families who have come here from another nation.

The New York Times argued that signs of nationalist and populist followings can be seen clearly when looking at President Donald Trump’s campaign and successful bid in the election, as well as overseas in the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. According to the Times, experts in sociological matters believe that discriminatory behavior against immigrant families can often be traced to fear of risks such as attacks and an extreme aversion to social change.

Social workers today need to understand the full breadth of factors that lead to discriminatory behaviors against immigrants and their children, as the country is expected to continue to have a higher population of immigrants over the coming years.

Jumping-off point for social workers

Although philosophy classes might not be on the docket for a social work student, there are some helpful facts, insights, and points of guidance to be found in this area of academia, especially when it comes to understanding and combating discrimination against immigrant families. Asia Society’s Center for Global Education offers a range of suggestions that can help social workers better understand the challenges they face.

For example, the organization points to a scholarly piece offered within Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy that discusses the roots of immigration, as well as the causes of discrimination against families from other countries. Social workers will need to possess strong communication skills to be able to discuss these matters with children, as well as when the time comes to converse with the individuals who might have been acting in racist or discriminatory fashions toward those kids, Asia Society noted.

The organization also pointed to the value of learning the stories of immigrant children, as well as those who were born to immigrant parents but within the United States, as these real-life insights provide context and critical knowledge that drives right to the heart of the matter. Asia Society offered the following anecdote from one teacher in a particularly diverse school: “I had a couple of students from the Congo, and they [shared] how their parents were hiding them under the floorboards as these people were coming in to kidnap [children] … Stories do have a huge impact on our students, especially the US-born citizens, because they’ve never really had to even think about that, let alone imagine that scenario.”

These types of stories can help social workers not only better understand the struggle of immigrant families, but potentially be inspired to assist them.

The complexity of racism in social work

Perhaps the most challenging matter of all in the discussion of social workers helping immigrant families is racism, which tends to be more difficult to understand, change, or adjust. The National Association of Social Workers argued that combating racism is actually an extremely common objective and task shared by organizations and professionals devoted to social work, as many of the families and children in need of support are subjected to either subtle or blatant racism. NASW explained that racial discrimination is even more complex when taking a step back and looking at it in a broader sense, as socioeconomic factors also come into play.

NASW spoke to the need for social workers – and the organizations they work for – to be cognizant of institutionalized racism, especially how it might not impact white professionals in this line of work but certainly will have lasting effects on immigrants, minorities, and other people they are helping.
Consider NASW’s initial description of what the profession of social work entails: “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty…Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty and other forms of social injustice.”

It should be clear that all forms of racism – but notably institutionalized versions of racism – will have an impact on the daily lives of social workers supporting and helping immigrant families. The more self-awareness social workers have in the context of discrimination against immigrants, the better-positioned they will be to assist these families.

More work to be done

Combating injustices, racism, and discrimination is nothing new in social work – facing these challenges is actually one of the main pillars and concepts that the profession is founded upon. As such, individuals who are currently getting their undergraduate degree in social work, or who are starting the path toward their master’s degrees, can use that foundation to expand core concepts. Reviewing social changes that have been made in the past decade—such as laws, political movements, and public perception—can help social workers craft strategies that aid and support immigrant families and their children.

In an article for the magazine The New Social Worker, author Barbara Trainin Blank stresses the importance of efforts that have been made by the NASW and other organizations to better educate communities regarding institutionalized racism and discrimination against immigrants and minorities alike. In many ways, these efforts are the very essence of tackling the problem at its source, as more awareness and less embedded racism will inherently lead to fewer instances of discrimination toward immigrants.

However, social workers cannot just focus on the broad matters that take decades to reconcile. When trying to strategize and plan ways to support immigrants and specifically their children, the education gained from an online Master of Social Work program may be of assistance. For instance, the Rutgers online MSW program includes course curriculum such as Psychopathology, Social Welfare Policy and Services, and Field Education Practicums, which can help students build a well-rounded educational foundation for their careers in social work.

Social workers need to remember that no two cases will ever be the same. The needs of children who have seen discrimination due to their immigrant backgrounds will vary from family to family, and the strategies in place to attend to the issues therein must be personalized and aligned with those unique factors. By getting the right education, social workers will be better-prepared to handle the challenges contained within pursuits to assist children of immigrant families who have faced discrimination and racism first-hand.


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