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Social Work’s Obligation to Undocumented Students
By Donette A. Gordon, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 22 No. 3 P. 14

Rooted in the value of service, social workers have a responsibility to ensure that this population has access to the necessary resources to grow and thrive.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The famous words of Emma Lazarus, engraved on the Statue of Liberty, welcoming immigrants from countries across the world—both the documented and the undocumented. However, these words ring hollow if everything possible is not done to help the poor and the tired who enter these shores, regardless of their immigration status.

Social workers are called on to serve the poor and the tired, especially the vulnerable children who enter this country with their parents.

The Issue
In the United States, there are approximately 2 million undocumented immigrants younger than 24.1 While this population is made vulnerable by oppressive systems and faces unique barriers to achievement—such as the risk of deportation and reduced access to so-called “legitimate” paths to resources and support—social workers are poised at multiple levels of practice to help. It is social workers’ principled responsibility to support this community, among whom luck should not be an essential ingredient to success.

In a country built on immigration—forced and otherwise—and that continues to benefit significantly from the contributions of immigrants, the topic remains divisive with little hope of things changing. An even more acrimonious aspect of the immigration debate is the subject of what should be done with those who find themselves classified as undocumented. Among this group are children and young people, who are in this position through no fault of their own.

No matter on what side of the argument they may find themselves, social workers’ only moral and ethical responsibility is to do all in their power to help these children and young people realize their potential.

One way to help is through providing access to the highest level of education.

Access to high-quality education at all levels is a human right. Immigration status should not be a prohibitive factor in accessing education at the postsecondary level for any individual, including those who are labeled undocumented. Unlike their peers with similar high school qualifications, undocumented students, under current laws, do not qualify for tuition and federal financial aid for college. They also are ineligible for state financial aid in most states.

This ineligibility causes undue hardship on undocumented students who wish to pursue higher education.

In 2015, the United Nations made ensuring inclusive and equitable access to education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all one of its Sustainable Development Goals.2 The goal is to achieve equity internationally and nationally. It is important that changes be made at the local level to ensure that undocumented students within US borders are not denied the opportunity to reach their full potential because of factors that cannot be changed. It is the responsibility of social workers to do all that can be done to help undocumented students overcome these hurdles.

Ethical Responsibilities
A former undocumented student says her journey to become a degreed social worker was not easy. While she finished in the top 10% of her high school graduating class, her journey through college and attaining employment was helped by the luck of meeting kind people along the way. “It took my college advisor to provide me with information on resources to help me get through college,” she says.

Now working in the field, she explains that while her experience was not unique, outcomes such as hers are not as common as they could be if social workers were in place to help undocumented students navigate systems and connect them to available resources.

Rooted in the value of service, social workers have a responsibility to ensure that undocumented students have access to the necessary resources to grow and thrive. Social workers must act to prevent exploitation and discrimination of this group based on, but not limited to, their immigration status.

It must be pointed out that some social workers are, indeed, doing this work. They share their perspectives on the reasons that this work is necessary and their ideas on what actions can be undertaken to help this population realize its full potential.

“Sometimes we think, ‘This does not apply to me,’ but that often means we possess an unearned privilege,” says Mia Ocean, MSW, PhD, an associate professor in the department of graduate social work at West Chester University. “In this case, social workers who were born in the United States essentially inherited citizenship as a form of intergenerational capital. We need to transform that power into equity for our neighbors. We need to actively advocate for long-term policy change and learn how to deftly maneuver within the system in the short term.”

Ocean, who has worked with undocumented students and their families for 20 years as a clinical social worker, designated school official (someone who oversees part of immigration legislation on behalf of a postsecondary institution), and professor, continues to work hard on their behalf. “For example, I expose the hidden rules of immigration I have learned in my work so undocumented students and their families can circumvent structural barriers and biased practitioners. I tell them, ‘If this is true for you, then you want to say this when you go here. That office is not a safe place. Do not offer additional information beyond what they ask you.’ I am not breaking the law, and I did not learn to do that in a training manual,” she says.

Martha Villegas Miranda, MSSW, an academic advisor at Broward College and director of TRIO REACH (Realizing Educational Access for College & Higher), who works with and for undocumented individuals and families, describes herself as “an unafraid social worker.” She urges social workers to take a similar stance.

“Social workers should attend trainings to become social work allies in their profession so they can advocate and promote social justice and elevate the voices of the undocumented immigrant community,” Villegas Miranda says.

Besides heeding advice from experts, social workers should be cognizant that the NASW Code of Ethics clearly outlines their responsibilities to help people in need and to address social problems.

• Cultural Competence and Social Diversity: Social workers should seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression concerning race, ethnicity, national origin, and immigration status.

• Discrimination: Social workers should not practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination, based on race, ethnicity, national origin, and immigration status.

• Social and Political Action: Social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class, based on race, ethnicity, and national origin.

Barriers to Service
Social workers must take action at all levels of our education system to empower undocumented students. While it is true that most students may not disclose their status for safety reasons, understanding their stories remains critical to social work. Unfortunately, social workers are usually unaware of the difficulties facing undocumented students and the unique circumstances in which they find themselves.

While social workers have not traditionally been those who directly address the legal challenges facing undocumented students, they have always played a significant role in advocating for changes in federal and state laws. In fact, some social workers hold political office, with direct influence on the writing and implementing of more favorable immigration policies. Immigration is a polarizing political issue, but social workers have a clear ethical mandate on the subject; the NASW Code of Ethics clearly dictates how immigrants—whether they be documented or undocumented—should be treated.

• Consider bias: Do not withhold information and services because of beliefs that undocumented students are undeserving. Most undocumented students experience hardship because of systems or because of decisions made by parents or guardians. Personal bias should not cause one to act in a discriminatory manner against undocumented students.

• Create a safe space for fearful students: Without explicit permission, social workers must not disclose the status of students to anyone. One of the greatest fears of undocumented students is deportation and separation from family. The fear of family separation is an ongoing trauma; creating a safe space is practicing trauma-informed care.

• Work from a universal design that includes access to state and federal benefits: Undocumented students and families are not typically eligible for state and federal benefits. Therefore, it is imperative that social workers understand this and not direct this population to apply for services for which they are ineligible. Applying for these benefits can unintentionally leave them exposed to investigation and deportation. Social workers should assume that students may be undocumented and provide information in a universal design format. This practice will help students who are not comfortable disclosing undocumented status to access information. By doing so, social workers are creating an environment where students can ask for help without fear.

• Ongoing education: In adhering to the value of competence in the profession, social workers must commit to education to further enhance their professional expertise. Social workers must provide services that cause no harm to clients. Educating themselves about laws as they apply to benefit eligibility will develop competency. This education must be ongoing as laws change. Social workers must be aware of the resources available through private organizations, such as TheDream.US, and direct students to the appropriate services.

In addition to these “hands-on” options, Villegas Miranda suggests the following macro-level actions:

• Advocate for immigration reform: There has not been a pathway to citizenship since 1986 during the Reagan administration. One does not have to be an expert because it can be overwhelming to feel the need to know everything. Collaborate with community-based partners to bring in knowledgeable allies to train the trainer in advocacy and empowerment work for and with undocumented individuals.

• Create a national poster campaign: Like the education movement, social workers can publicly state their support with and for undocumented individuals.

• Include the voice of the population: “The voice of undocumented individuals is very important; hence, I always start work with and for undocumented individuals,” Villegas Miranda says. “Who are better able to tell the stories of the undocumented immigrant than the undocumented immigrants themselves? Providing a platform and empowering them to tell their stories elevates their voices and allows others to see their humanity, making for a more empathic response to their needs.”

Villegas Miranda meets many people who are unaware of the struggles of undocumented individuals. She recommends creating awareness campaigns that share the stories of the undocumented (with their permission or anonymously), such as a Coming Out of the Shadows rally.

“Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging efforts are not complete if it does not include the voices of undocumented individuals,” Villegas Miranda says.

The Benefit to Wider Society
The presence of the undocumented student population is a reality. They have been and will continue to remain in need of services. Not only will providing these services benefit these students, but society also will reap the rewards.

With the right services and support, these students will eventually become citizens who contribute to the cultural and economic growth of the country. Undocumented immigrants living in the United States pay billions of dollars each year in state and local taxes.3 Furthermore, these tax contributions would increase significantly if all undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States were granted a pathway to higher education, making them even greater contributors to society.

Many famous Americans who started their journey as undocumented immigrants have gone on to contribute greatly to society. Two such examples are actor and former governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author Jose Antonio Vargas. Also, the student mentioned at the beginning of this article, although not well known, has achieved remarkable success. She now has an advanced degree in social work and runs her own consulting company, becoming yet another example of the immense potential to be found in undocumented youth.

By federal law, undocumented students are afforded an education up to the high school level. Nevertheless, social workers know they, like so many other marginalized populations, deserve more than the bare minimums required by law. As ethical and moral social workers, we must seek to elevate our undocumented neighbors so they will be proud, contributing members to American society and beyond.

The potential of undocumented students is limited only by us. For the benefit of everyone, it is time for social workers to envision and create a space that supports this population to its fullest capacity.

Donette A. Gordon, MSW, is a recent MSW graduate from West Chester University.


1. Profile of the unauthorized population. Migration Policy Institute website. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/data/unauthorized-immigrant-population/state/US. Accessed May 30, 2022.

2. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. United Nations website. https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal4. Accessed May 30, 2022.

3. Gee LC, Gardner M, Hill ME, Wiehe M; Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Undocumented immigrants' state & local tax contributions. https://www.immigrationresearch.org/system/files/immigration_taxes_2017.pdf. Updated March 2017. Accessed May 30, 2022.