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Recent attempts at immigration reform have been captured, directions of some state-related immigration laws included, more recent data provided, and references have been updated.

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Immigration Policy

Abstract and Keywords

Individuals and families from around the globe form a continuous stream of immigrants to the United States, with waiting lists for entry stretching to several years. Reasons for this ongoing influx are readily apparent, because the United States is one of the most attractive nations in the world, regardless of its problems. There is much in the United States that native-born Americans take for granted and that is not available in most other countries, and there are several amenities, opportunities, possibilities, lifestyles, and freedoms in the United States (U.S.) that are not found together in any other nation. In theory, and often in reality, the U.S. is a land of freedom, of equality, of opportunity, of a superior quality of life, of easy access to education, and of relatively few human rights violations. This entry will focus on immigration policy through legislative history and its impact, demographic trends, the economic impact, the immigrant workforce, educational and social service systems, ethical issues, and roles for social workers.

Keywords: demographic trends, economics, ethics, immigration policy, service systems, social capital, workforce

Overview of Immigration to the United States

Individuals and families from around the globe form a continuous stream of immigrants to the United States, with waiting lists for entry stretching to several years. Unauthorized immigrants abound, and refugees and asylees arrive in record numbers. People of color from Asia, Africa, and Central and South America have been disproportionately represented in recent years, and an overwhelming majority remains despite encountering a series of barriers. Reasons for this ongoing influx are readily apparent, because the United States is one of the most attractive nations in the world, regardless of its problems. There is much in the United States that native-born Americans take for granted that is not available in most other countries, and there are many amenities, opportunities, possibilities, lifestyles, and freedoms in the United States that are not found together in any other nation. In theory, and often in reality, the U.S. is a land of freedom, equality, opportunity, a superior quality of life, easy access to education, and relatively few human rights violations. It is a land that, in the early 21st century, is struggling toward multiculturalism and pluralism in its institutions and social outlook. It is a land that, compared to others, offers newcomers a relatively easy path through which to become integrated into its largesse.

Although individuals may wish to emigrate, immigration is highly contingent on the receptiveness of the potential host nation to immigrants in general, and immigrants from specific countries in particular. Most governments now have strict immigration laws; this was not always the case and people were relatively free to live where they chose. U.S. immigration history, since the mid-eighteenth century, has been impacted by legislation that has substantially colored the face of immigration in the last two and a half centuries.

Legislative History and Its Impact

U.S. immigration history may be divided into seven periods during which legal measures allowed or controlled the categories of people allowed to immigrate (Kim, 1994, pp. 8–9).

  1. 1. The colonial period (16091775): Most immigrants were from the British Isles, and the colonies had little control over immigration.

  2. 2. The American Revolutionary period (17761840): European immigration slowed because of war; there were general anti-foreign feelings.

  3. 3. The “old” immigration period (18411882): Local governments recruited people from Northern Europe. Chinese could also immigrate.

  4. 4. The regulation period (18821920): Chinese were prevented from immigrating. Immigrants that were admitted were primarily from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe.

  5. 5. The restriction and exclusion period (19211952): A quota system restricted immigration from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe; all Asians were excluded.

  6. 6. The partial liberalization period (19521965): Asia had the same quota as Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, and all were allowed naturalization.

  7. 7. The liberalized policy period (1965 to present): The quota policy was repealed, allowing entry to immigrants from developing countries.

Given below are brief sketches of immigration-related legislation or action (USCIS, 2012) that, since the beginning of the liberalization period, have affected diverse populations in a variety of ways, from entry into the U.S. itself to access to fundamental rights.


The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) liberalized immigration and repealed legal discrimination on the basis of race, gender, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence. While this act has been amended several times, it remains essentially unchanged.


The Refugee Act removed refugees as a preference category. The president and Congress determined the annual ceiling and country distributions (ceilings have ranged from 50,000–90,000 immigrants per year).


The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) legalized many unauthorized immigrants but made it unlawful to hire unauthorized workers.


The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the number of annual immigrants to 700,000 and established the Immigrant Investor Program, which was the most major change to the INA of 1965.


Welfare Reform ended many cash and medical assistance programs for most legal immigrants.


The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) expanded enforcement operations of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).


The USA Patriot Act, in response to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York and Washington, DC, gave federal officials greater power to intercept national and international communications.


Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 attempted to curtail and address the presence of unauthorized immigrants.

Since 2007, there have been a series of unsuccessful attempts to pass additional federal immigration legislation that would limit entry, particularly that of unauthorized migrants, and that would make it more difficult for family reunification entries. Proposals for the abolition of employer-sponsored visas in lieu of a merit-based point system, such as those used by Canada and Australia, have also failed to receive sufficient legislative support. Hence, despite the years of discussion and deliberation between 2007 and 2012, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 is the last piece of viable federal immigration legislation.

The DREAM Act (American Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) was proposed in 2001 and was expected to provide a path to citizenship for children brought to the country illegally; it has been forestalled in deliberations for over a decade. In an attempt to recognize the lack of culpability of minors who were brought into the nation without requisite papers, President Barack Obama announced some relief for unauthorized immigrant children in June 2012. The Obama administration announced that it would not deport unauthorized immigrants that were brought to the United States as children before the age of 16, had no criminal record, and had lived in the U.S. for at least five years; further, such immigrants would receive a two-year work permit and would be permitted to enroll in institutions of higher learning. Although this policy provides relief to approximately 1.7 million unauthorized young people [NCSL (National Conference of State Legislators), 2012b], it does not allow a path to citizenship, and the DREAM Act has yet to pass the House and the Senate.

Most promising, in 2013, is the Bipartisan Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform drafted by the “Gang of 8” that proposes four basic pillars of legislation (Preston, 2013): 1. Creating a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already living in the United states 2. Reforming the legal immigration system to attract and keep the world’s brightest and best workers 3. Strengthening the employment verification system 4. Improving the process for admitting new workers and protecting their rights.

While details will need to be drafted, the bipartisan “Gang,” which is composed of Republican Senators John McCain (Arizona), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), Marco Rubio (Florida), and Jeff Flake (Arizona) and Democratic Senators Richard Durbin (Illinois), Charles Schumer (New York), Robert Menendez (New Jersey), and Michael Bennet (Colorado), suggests that this framework may be more palatable to both Democrats and Republicans. The proposal aims to address the failings of the immigration system in a comprehensive manner, rather than piecemeal (see

Implications of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act had a major and permanent impact on U.S. immigration, dramatically altering the traditional immigrant origins and numbers. Prior to 1965 and the amendments of October 3rd to the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which resulted in the liberalization of immigration laws, the majority of entrants into the United States were from European countries. The 1965 amendments (i) abolished national origins quota; (ii) established preferences for relatives of citizens and permanent residents; (iii) exempted immediate relatives of citizens and some special groups (for example, certain ministers of religion, former employees of U.S. government abroad); and (iv) expanded limits of world coverage to a 20,000 per country limit, the influx of newcomers from non-European countries was and continues to be unprecedented.

Although with frequent minor modifications, the Immigration Act of October 1, 1965, directs U.S. immigration. More significantly, while INA, ACT 202, identifies the numerical limitation for foreign states, it includes in it a non-discrimination clause, stating, “no person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person's race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” (USCIS, 2012).

The numbers of immigrants admitted legally are (a) fixed by law; (b) limited only by demands for those considered eligible; and (c) restricted by processing constraints (Gordon, 2005). The INA Act specifies between 416,000 and 675,000 immigrant annual limits. The limits for each fiscal year can be found the website of the U.S. Department of State and fall into the three categories of family-sponsored immigrants (226,000), employment-based immigrants (144,951), and diversity immigrants (55,000) (U.S. Department of State, 2012).

A substantial number of legal immigrants include those who are not subject to these numerical limits, such as parents, spouses, and children of U.S. citizens and children born abroad to permanent residents. In 2011, 453,158 parents, spouses, and children of U.S. citizens were granted immigration, and in the same year, another 633 immigrant visas were given to children who were born to permanent residents who were living abroad when the children were born (Monger & Yankay, 2012).A unique addition to the immigration quota is the “investor program” that issues approximately 10,000 visas annually to those who are willing to invest one million dollars in urban areas or $500,000 in rural areas of the United States.

Immigration-related State Laws

In an interesting twist, the United States is seeing unique and multiple interpretations of immigration law. Immigration to a country is defined and circumscribed by federal or national policies. Immigration laws identify who can enter a country and under what conditions. Once immigrants are in the host country, immigrant policies (which sometimes vary among states) determine what resources the immigrants may access and what programs and services are available as they integrate themselves with the host culture. Approximately twice a year, the NCSL releases reports on immigration-related laws introduced or enacted by states; some laws apply to legal immigrants and refugees, while others attempt to manage the unauthorized immigrant population. In the first half of 2012, the state legislatures sponsored 948 bills and resolutions and enacted 206; nevertheless, this was a 40% drop in proposed legislation compared to the number of bills introduced during the same period in 2011, and a 20% drop in enacted legislation.The legislation covered a variety of areas, including budgets, education, employment, health, human trafficking, IDs/driver’s license, law enforcement, public benefits, and voting, among others (NCSL, 2012a).

The Arizona Immigration Law SB 1070 (NYT, 2012), which aimed to discourage or keep unauthorized immigrants from the state, was among the most significant and controversial of state immigration-related laws. This law expanded the authority of state police to investigate immigration status and required individuals to carry immigration papers at all times and be subject to detention as deemed appropriate by police officers. In April 2012, the Supreme Court overturned most of the law but declined to reject the provision that authorized police officers ask for immigration papers if they believed there was reason for suspicion.

Five states, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, have enacted laws similar to that of Arizona. These states, along with Arizona, currently are facing class action suits regarding the constitutionality of these laws and the authority of states to enforce immigration laws, which should be the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government.

Demographic Trends

Newcomers to the United States enter under a variety of conditions. Early migrants of the 18th and 19th centuries came as volunteer immigrants, indentured laborers, or slaves; most migrants of the early 20th century were volunteer immigrants—most were considered “legal immigrants,” particularly in the absence of any legislation. Present-day immigrants may be categorized as voluntary immigrants (legal or unauthorized) or as refugees (and asylees). Many legal immigrants, after a minimum length of residence in the country, choose to apply for U.S. citizenship.

The U.S. Census Bureau indicated that in 2011, of the approximately 311.5 million residents of the country, 40.4 million (13%) were foreign born. On October 17, 2006, the population of the United States reached the 300 million mark, and this increase was a result of immigration in addition to birthrate. Of the 40.4 million foreign born individuals in the U.S. in 2011, 21.1% were from Europe, 28.6% were from Asia, 52.6% were from Latin America, and 6.7% were from other regions, including Africa. The largest number of migrants from any one country is from Mexico, but this still accounts for less than a quarter of the total entrants. Hence, it is essential that, while recognizing the strong Mexican presence in the United States, one remain cognizant of the diversity of immigrants.

Among those who voluntarily migrate to the United States are immigrants without the requisite papers, who are known as unauthorized(often used interchangeably with “undocumented” and “illegal”) immigrants. While there is no valid method of counting unauthorized immigrants, estimates suggest numbers of about 11.2 million (Passel & Cohn, 2011). These immigrants are people who are in the United States without governmental approval and are sometimes described as economic refugees, although they are not so recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Although unauthorized immigrants lack the legal documentation to continue residing in the United States, they may have entered the country either legally or illegally. Despite perceptions of unauthorized immigrants as migrants who slip across borders without appropriate documentation, a large proportion (between 40% and 50% of all unauthorized immigrants, particularly from Asian countries) are “overstays” who fail to leave when the period of their visas expires; in 2011, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that it was in the process of dealing with the backlog of 1.6 million overstayed visas (Department of Homeland Security, 2011), and this number refers only to the overstays about which DHS is aware.

Refugees and asylees, unlike immigrants, are usually involuntary migrants. The United States has always been a refuge for those fleeing from persecution and accommodates the largest number of the world's refugees (Mayadas & Segal, 2000; Segal, 2010). The 1951 convention and the 1967 protocol setting forth the mandate of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees identifies refugees as persons outside their homelands who are unable to return because of fear of persecution. The U.S. president, in consultation with Congress, establishes annual numbers and allocations of refugees based on the current political climate of the world. In recent years, these annual numbers have varied from 70,000 to 91,000. The 70,000 refugee ceiling for 2013 is allocated as follows: Africa, 12,000; East Asia, 17,000; Europe and Central Asia, 2,000; Latin America and the Caribbean, 5,000; Near East and South Asia, 31,000; and the unallocated reserve, 3,000 (Obama, 2012).

Asylees differ from refugees in that they usually enter the United States on their own volition without prior approval. Once within the United States, they apply for asylum and are detained until a determination is made regarding their legal admission as refugees or repatriation to their homelands. If refugees are legally admitted, then they may apply for a status adjustment to that of permanent resident after a year. In throwback fashion to earlier migration periods of the early 20th century, the U.S. is beginning to see three additional groups of migrants—victims of human smuggling, victims of human trafficking, and mail-order brides.

The guest worker program was part of the 2007 Immigration Reform Bill that permitted temporary workers to enter the country for a period of up to six years to assume jobs for which U.S. employers were unable to find native employees. It has been subject to a variety of interpretations and continues to be a pawn in the political arena. In reality, a “guest worker” program has unofficially long been in existence. This pattern of immigration is known as circular migration (Miller, 2009; Zuniga, 2006); however, the difference now, increasingly, is that seasonal workers are choosing to remain in the United States because cross-border movement has become extremely dangerous (Zuniga, 2006), as any daily news report will reveal. Furthermore, migration (both authorized and otherwise) from Mexico is waning, with a net migration rate of zero (Stephens, 2012), as dangers increase and economic opportunities in the United States decline. As economic opportunities increase in traditionally sending countries, migration researchers report two phenomena that are evidencing themselves more frequently—return migration as immigrants return permanently to their homelands several years, or even decades, after emigrating, and transnational migration, where individuals and families divide their time between their countries of origin and the United States.

Regardless of the process and reasons for immigration to the United States, for most, a primary impetus is economic opportunity. Few rarely sever ties with their homelands, and a significant number sends remittances to support family members, organizations, or communities.

Economic Impact of Immigration

Many deliberations in the United States surround migration's economic impact. The ongoing immigration debate juggles arguments regarding assets newcomers bring with those about drains they place on the infrastructure. The country is divided on the current net worth of immigration in the 21st century.

The Immigrant Workforce

The continuing focus on immigration reform and the guest worker program has drawn overwhelming focus toward unauthorized workers. However, of the 40+ million documented immigrants in the United States, over 23 million are employed, and approximately 15 million are children, or in the armed forces, or not in the labor force; only 2.2 million are unemployed. They are found across the occupational structure. While legal immigrants constituted 13% of the population in 2011 and were 15.7% of the labor force, 16.4% lived in poverty (U.S. Census Bureau, 2011). Between 2009 and 2010, foreign-born workers gained 657,000 jobs and native-born workers gained 685,000 jobs, with unemployment rates falling for both groups; the former reported an unemployment rate of 9.9%, while the latter indicated one of 9.0% (Kochhar, 2011). Many big businesses, construction companies, agriculturists, and employers in service industries contend that the absence of immigrant workers would cause a major catastrophe in the U.S. economy. These groups specifically refer to the absence of the unauthorized workforce (Caulfield, 2006). Unauthorized workers are estimated to fill 25% of all agricultural jobs, 17% of office and house cleaning jobs, 14% of construction jobs, and 12% of food preparation jobs. Estimates suggest that about an average of 280,000 unauthorized immigrants have entered the U.S. annually, between 2000 and 2011. The majority (73%) is believed to be from Latin America, 59% from Mexico, 16% from other countries in Central America and South America, and 10% from Asian countries (Hoefer, Rytina & Baker, 2012).

The United States is severely divided about the presence of unauthorized immigrants. Border enforcement has been heightened consistently since 1990, and especially so since 2007. Despite laws regarding workplace immigration enforcement, it still appears to have relatively low priority. Nevertheless, the Office of Homeland Security has been attempting to increase vigilance, and reported that it made 520 criminal arrests related to worksite enforcement investigations in 2012 (ICE, 2013). This is a change from 2004, when only three companies received penalty notices, down from 417 in 1999 (Portes, 2006).

While business leaders and immigration advocates believe deportation of unauthorized workers would cause a collapse in the U.S. economy (Ohlemacher, 2006), other experts suggest that more U.S. citizens would apply for some jobs filled by migrant workers if wage exploitation was less prevalent and if higher wages were offered. Low wages for immigrants are not limited to blue-collar occupations. Immigrants that enter the United States on the “high-tech” H-1B visa are usually at the bottom of the pay scale for their positions. Despite the Department of Labor’s (DOL) legal equity requirements(Department of Labor, 2012), H-1B immigrants have been known to earn $13,000 less than their American counterparts (Miano, 2005).

Brain Gain Versus Brain Drain

Contrary to Emma Lazarus’ wonderfully touching poem etched upon the Statue of Liberty, the majority of individuals who undertake the challenge of migration to an alien land are rarely those without substantial human capital, at least in terms of psychological, intellectual, and physical capabilities. Most immigrants move to enhance their opportunities, often coming to study and eventually adjusting to immigrant visa status, thus bringing resources that are beneficial to the United States. This process, long known as the “brain drain” is now recognized as a “brain gain” for host countries. The 2010 census indicates that college educated individuals account for 26.8% of the foreign-born population in the United States, suggesting a fairly substantial drain from countries of emigration to add to the resources of the United States. Recent lists of Nobel Prize winners reveal a disproportionate number were born outside the United States.

The brain drain indirectly helps build capacity in the country of origin as expatriates remit money to family members and communities in the homeland, helping to offset poverty for poorer or less-educated family members and communities (IOM, 2009), thus adding to economic movement in the homeland. These remittances can be quite substantial; for example, in 2011, worldwide remittances were over 370 billion dollars, and remittances to Mexico, primarily from the United States, topped 23 billion dollars (Diaz & Ng, 2012). Furthermore, recently a “reverse brain drain” is causing concern as both native-born and first-generation (immigrant) Americans are taking their college degrees and experience and moving to better opportunities outside the United States (Lee, 2011).

Less is known about the extent of “brain waste” and about a very new and emerging idea that has burgeoned with the ease of international mobility and communications, “brain circulation.” When individuals occupy positions that are not commensurate with their education, training, and expertise, it reflects a wastage of talent, hence, the concept of “brain waste.” Some entry barriers prevent individuals from accessing the professional stature that they may have achieved in their home countries. For example, if there is no reciprocity in credentialing or if credentials, such as licenses, are not transferable, immigrants may be unable to invest the time and money to re-credential themselves in the U.S. while earning enough to sustain themselves and their families. Literature suggests that educated immigrants from Latin America and Eastern Europe are more likely to find themselves in low skill occupations than are those from Asia and industrialized nations (Mattoo, Neagu & Özden, 2008). With economic changes around the globe, enterprising young professionals are seeing fit to utilize opportunities in several nations to augment their entrepreneurial endeavors Teferra (2005), in fact, suggests that to presume “brain drain” versus “brain gain” is outmoded, because the information superhighway “has conquered barriers of time and space” (p. 229), thus allowing nations to avail themselves of migrant knowledge and skills regardless of the country in which these individuals reside.

Impact of Migration Policies: Implications for Social Work

Immigrant Influences on the United States and the Native-Born

As immigrants enter and adapt to life in the United States, they bring with them a diversity of cultures and norms. The nation influences these New Americans, but it is also influenced by their social norms, family patterns, art, music, dance, cuisine, and businesses that sometimes challenge American traditions. In addition, immigrants affect social work and human services, both as service providers and users, so focusing solely on immigrant adaptation provides a partial picture (Fong & Greene, 2009; Elliott, Segal & Mayadas, 2010).

Impact on Health, Education, and Social Service Systems

Health Systems

U.S. health policy and health coverage have particular implications for those in poverty, those who are near poverty, and those of low socioeconomic status and income who are self-employed. The last group is the least likely to be able to afford private insurance coverage, yet it is ineligible for means-tested coverage such as Medicaid, and the non-coverage rate is higher for minorities. Large segments of the immigrant population are self-employed, and the exorbitant costs of private insurance correlates with low insurance coverage. Furthermore, certain segments of the new immigrant populations are likely to be poor and remain poor because they have higher levels of unemployment, less education, and larger families than do native-born groups (Haniffa, 1999), groups in other socioeconomic segments, and those who have been in the U.S. for longer periods of time (Segal, 2010). U.S. healthcare policy, hotly contested at present and labeled “Affordable Care Act,” may have important implications for immigrants, particularly for those who are underemployed.

Implications of health policy for immigrants are not limited to issues of coverage; several other cultural and educational concerns confound access to health-care services. Health policy also should address service utilization. General health-care access is fraught with problems for many immigrant groups, and these are exacerbated by the implementation of the 1995 Federal Welfare Reform law (H. R. 3734). Even immigrants that have good health-care coverage may be less knowledgeable about the availability of programs and services, more suspicious of different treatment methods, uncomfortable with interaction patterns with health-care providers, confused by insurance programs and reimbursement procedures, and less likely to utilize preventive measures. Thus, when a large segment of the immigrant population finally does access health-care services, it may be through the already overburdened emergency rooms or through practitioners who are unprepared to communicate with them, either because of language differences or because of cultural barriers. Social work, with its focus on cultural sensitivity and competence, is particularly well placed to mediate between immigrant patients, their families, and the health-care system, by interpreting the process and helping to lessen cross-cultural difficulties.

Educational Systems

The national policy [20 USCS, Sec. 1221–1 (1999)] states that “every citizen is entitled to an education … without financial barriers” (p. 10).

Referring to federal immigration policies, Congress noted in 20 USCS, Sec. 7402–1 (1999) that the population of language-minority Americans in the United States speak almost all the world's languages and that many children and young people have limited English proficiency. In the 1960s, the debate surrounding bilingual education resulted in the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, which was a result of federal acknowledgement that there are several limited English proficiency children in the United States; it was believed that if these children were offered education also in their own languages, it would ease their transition into the U.S. educational system and allow them to gradually acquire the English language (Stewner-Manzanares, 1988). Congress recommended that elementary and secondary schools be strengthened with bilingual education, language-enhancement, and language-acquisition programs; however, recent immigrant backlash has resulted in “English only” resolutions in a number of states. Congress also proposed an emergency immigrant education policy to help immigrant children who lack English language skills to make the transition. Free public education to the secondary level is available to all U.S. residents, and schooling is mandated for all children under the age of 16 years. This mandate (and access) applies to all immigrant children, regardless of immigration status. Social work practitioners must determine how they will address the English language issue for non-English speaking clients. Becoming functional in a new language in adulthood is difficult, and as social workers provide services to those with poor English skills, they must assess their positions in the language debate, because it affects intervention.

Social Service Systems

While some immigrants have benefited from the Social Security Act, changes in eligibility mandated by Congress in 1996 specifically limited access, particularly to cash assistance and medical benefits, until immigrants have been in the country a certain length of time. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of August 22, 1996 (10 Statutes-at-Large 2105), lists the following restrictions for “qualified” immigrants who entered the United States after that date.

Barred from SSI and food stamps

In 1996, when President Clinton signed the PRWORA, most immigrants became ineligible for several governmental programs for the first five years following their migration to the country. Thus, most immigrants are subject to a five-year bar on non-emergency Medicaid, the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and food stamps. Exemption for one year is offered for some battered spouses and children, and for those at risk of going hungry or becoming homeless. After the five-year bar, states still retain the option to determine immigrant eligibility for TANF, Medicaid, and social service block grants.

The changes mandated through PRWORA effectively bar qualified needy families, the elderly, and women with dependent children from applying for assistance. Census figures suggest that the number of needy families and elderly is sizable, and that the laws have resulted in both economic and psychological difficulties for them (Clarke, 2004). While there is some literature that indicates that, in general, social welfare services are minimally accessed by immigrants (Kretsedemas, 2003) for a number of cultural reasons, among them shame in seeking assistance from outside the family and fear and distrust of governmental authority, other studies have found that use of food stamps and Medicaid is proportionately higher among immigrant groups than the native-born population (Camarota, 2011). Thus, the social services often maintain the misconception that immigrants have few needs or that the family or immigrant community can address their needs. It may be necessary for social workers to take the lead in outreach efforts, recognizing that invisibility may not be synonymous with absence of need.

Readiness of Receiving Country for Immigrants: Social Capital

Immigration policies (that is, the laws that determine who is eligible to enter the country) and immigrant policies (that is, the laws and programs that reflect how immigrants are received once they are in the country) should be differentiated. The former are federally regulated and apply across the nation, while the latter are highly dependent on state and local programs and local public perceptions and can show a great deal of variability. Many immigrant policies are instrumental in determining how well human capital is nurtured and developed.

The readiness of a receiving country to accept immigrants in general or an immigrant group in particular is a complex matter. When immigration is viewed as inextricably bound to a nation's political, economic, and social well being, as well as to its future security interests, it is likely to be welcomed. Nevertheless, the immigration policies of many countries are temporal, reflecting what is believed to be of benefit at a particular moment. Nations also fulfill international agreements in the resettlement or provision of asylum to large numbers of refugees, to facilitate government action, and for humanitarian reasons. Policies that allow immigration often are coupled with those that permit the expulsion or deportation of foreign nationals.

Social capital, “the internal social and cultural coherence of society, the norms and values that govern interactions among people and the institutions in which they are embedded” (Serageldin, 1999, Elliott et al, 2010), is essential in ensuring that opportunities within a nation are strong and viable. It is a necessity in the creation of human capital (Coleman, 1988), and immigrants’ adjustment is often linked to the social capital available to them. For successful integration, the nation's welfare policies should guarantee that all immigrants have access to appropriate public welfare services and subsidies, and that they are connected to private welfare programs as necessary.

Availability and accessibility to social capital are paramount in the successful settlement of immigrants in their country of adoption. In addition to providing new arrivals with economic subsidies, housing and health care, community-based educational programs and training can provide the components for new immigrants to move away from dependency on society's support programs (Lobo & Mayadas, 1997). Hence, immigrants’ knowledge about disease prevention, their ability to function through society's institutional structures, and their earning capacity in the legitimate economy of the country will enhance their likelihood of self-sufficiency. Social and mental health services that recognize the difficulties associated with the immigration experience can assist immigrants in their adjustment to the receiving country. Resistance, communication barriers, personal and family background, and ethnic community identity (Lum, 2004) are exacerbated by the experience of many immigrants and refugees, who closely guard information because of fear (perhaps unfounded) of exposure, past experience with oppression, and mistrust of authority. A number of immigrants and most refugees arrive from nations in turmoil in which they do not have the freedom of speech or of choice, and many continue to fear deportation from the United States.

Ethical Issues

In addition to the several ethical issues that confront social workers on a regular basis, the major issue that they must resolve for themselves is where they stand on the debate on unauthorized immigrants. It is expected that social workers uphold U.S. laws and support both immigration and immigrant policies. As such, social workers should deny services to unauthorized immigrants, they must report them, and they ought to intervene when others allow them access to resources. On the other hand, social workers are expected to uphold the dignity of individuals, provide opportunities, and strive for social and economic justice. Even when immigrants are documented, social workers must address ethical conflicts associated with English-only policies and face differences in cross-cultural values and behaviors. To what extent should the United States, which invites, or accepts, newcomers, adapt to them, and to what extent should the New Americans adapt? Immigrants and the country must constantly juggle what in the host country and what from the home country should be valued, and what should be discarded? These issues will continue to face social work policymakers and practitioners when they focus on immigration and immigrants.

The Role of Social Capital

It is safe to say that the flow of immigrants can strain the receiving country's support service systems. It behooves policy makers and service providers to be cognizant of the experience of immigrants so that they can appropriately meet their voiced, or unvoiced, needs and ensure that the nation's social capital is available to this group in enhancing their human capital. Receiving countries must recognize that migration across their borders will persist with improvements in transportation and with further emerging reasons for relocating. In admitting immigrants, the United States makes a commitment to them. Unless the country is willing to help immigrants through the transitional period of adjustment, the immigrants’ unmet economic, social, health, and mental health needs can, in both the short and the long term, drain the country’s resources. On the other hand, early attention to these very immigrants may accelerate their entry as contributors to the society (Mayadas & Elliott, 2003). While some experiences are unique to a particular immigrant group or to a specific individual, much in the immigrant experience is shared—from emigration to immigration, including reactions to and by the receiving country.

A framework that views the totality of the immigration experience, from the impetus to leave the home country to resettlement and adaptation in the host country (Segal, 2002), can provide a foundation for the interpretation of the events that influence both particular groups and individuals in those groups, specifically within the context of the receiving country's readiness to accept them. As immigration accelerates, it will be imperative for policy makers and service providers to become more sensitive to the unique needs of new arrivals and to assess the degree to which programs and services are inclusive and supportive or xenophobic and discriminatory. Such assessments may ensure that programs are modified to manage a mutually satisfactory adjustment between both the immigrant group and the host country.

Concluding Comments

Substantial changes in immigration and immigrant policies in the United States are slow to evolve; however, they do change over time. More importantly, changes in political and social attitudes affect the interpretation of these policies, at the national, state, and local levels, and even at the client contact level. This article presents a very general overview of immigration and immigrant policies and their implications. Social workers must remember that while the lives of these populations alter dramatically when they enter the country, their lives do not begin here. Many factors influenced their decisions to move to the United States, and U.S. immigration policies affected the ease of process. All immigrants and refugees have in common the newcomer experience in this land of opportunity and the experience of loss of that which they have left in their homelands. However, there the similarity ends. A close inspection of the Census data, available on the government website, should be made by any practitioner interested in this population. It is abundantly clear that there is no single profile of immigrants or refugees. They range in age from infancy to old age. They may be single, married, divorced, or widowed; they may come with families, without families, or as part of an extended family. They may be white, black, brown, yellow, red, or any other color under which the human species is categorized. They may be living in the United States legally or illegally. They may be professionally trained and highly skilled, or they may be laborers with skills that cannot be transferred to the U.S. economy. They may be extremely wealthy or very poor. They may be fluent in the English language and speak several other languages, or they may speak only their mother tongue, which may not be English, and they may be illiterate even in their own language. They may be from cultures that are highly hierarchical and autocratic, or they may be from cultures where there is greater equality.

Underlying difficulties in working with immigrants and refugees is a far reaching xenophobia—both of the immigrants and by them. It is difficult to assess who should be responsible for crossing this bridge—is it the host or is it the self-invited newcomer? Should the host country accommodate immigrants and refugees, or should immigrants and refugees adapt to the host country? The United States has policies to allow 700,000 immigrants annually and, often, almost a tenth as many refugees and half as many “exempt” family members for a total yearly entry rate of well over one million. Therefore, should this host country not attempt to accommodate the immigrants that it allows to enter?.

Should immigrants not make attempts to adjust? With whom does the responsibility lie?

For immigrants, as for all people, much is dependent on their personal resources. More significant, however, is the readiness of the receiving country to accept immigrants and their American-born descendants. Immigration policies and programs may reflect the interests of the nation in allowing entry to certain groups of people; however, it is the opportunities and obstacles that immigrants and their offspring encounter on a daily basis that affect the ease of adjustment and mutual acceptance. Immigrants and the host nation must make a conscious attempt to adapt to each other—it is neither the exclusive responsibility of the host nation nor of the immigrant. With increasing transnational movement, countries struggle with designing, developing, and implementing immigration and immigrant policies that meet the economic, social, and political goals. The most significant issue that appears to be facing the United States is the management of unauthorized immigrants. However, the nation must also constantly assess the implications of its immigration policies and effectively manage legal migration to meet its economic needs, allow family reunification, and fulfill humanitarian expectations. Policies cannot be limited to who is allowed into the country and under what circumstances; immigrant policies and immigrant access to programs and services should enhance the social, economic, and political integration of newcomers into the society and maximize the benefits of their human capital.

For any immigrant community, it is a long road from its country of origin. The physical distance may be great, but the social, psychological, and emotional distance of immigrant travel is often greater. Nevertheless, the human condition and its similarities bind peoples together to a much greater extent than one tends to accept, regardless of social norms, culture, religion, or language. As a land of immigrants, if the United States is to be truly multicultural, as it claims to be, it must also be pluralistic and recognize, accept, and laud the diversity of people as a national asset. The United States does not have the corner on cultural diversity and immigration struggles, and in this increasingly interdependent world, it may seek to explore effective policies, programs, and services from other nations to inform its own practices (see Segal, Elliott & Mayadas, 2010).


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                                                                                                        Further Reading

                                                                                                        Balgopal, P. (Ed.). (2000). Social work practice with immigrants and refugees. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                            Bernstein, N. (2006, May 21). 100 years in the back door, out the front. New York Times 4, 4. Retrieved March 3, 2013, from this resource:

                                                                                                              Borjas, G.J. (2011). Heaven’s door: Immigration policy and the American economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                          Gouveia, L., Carranza, M. A., & Cogua, J. (2005). The Great Plains migration: Mexicanos and Latinos in Nebraska. In V. Zuniga & R. Hernandez-Leon (Eds.), New destinations: Mexican immigration in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 23–49.Find this resource:

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                                                                                                                                        Potocky-Tripodi, M. (2002). Best practices for social work with refugees and immigrants. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                          Rumbaut, R. G. (1997). Assimilation and its discontents: Between rhetoric and reality. International Migration Review, 31(4), 923–960.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                            Segal, U.A., Elliott, D. & Mayadas, N.S. [(eds) 2010]. Immigration worldwide. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                              U.S. Census Bureau. (2006). Statistical abstract of the United States: 2006. The national data book, (125th ed.). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                Zohlberg, A. R. (2006). A nation by design: Immigration policy in the fashioning of America. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                  Zuniga, V., & Hernandez-Leon, R. (Eds.). (2005). Introduction. New destinations: Mexican immigration in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, xi–xxix.Find this resource: