In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Immigrants and Refugees

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Digital Media

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Social Work Immigrants and Refugees
Elaine Congress
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0166


Because of climate change, natural and manmade disasters, urbanization, and globalization, the number of people migrating around the world is increasing. The United States has the largest number of immigrants, with over forty-two million (UN High Commission for Refugees 2009, cited under United Nations, p. xix). Over 13 percent of the total US population is foreign born, but this total is much higher in urban areas, with numbers approaching 40 percent. These immigrants come from many countries, with the following eight countries in descending order the primary origin for immigrants in the United States: Mexico, China, Philippines, India, Vietnam, Cuba, South Korea, and Canada. Although undocumented immigrants have received the most media attention, the number of legal naturalized immigrants is much larger. There are different legal definitions of naturalized immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and refugees. Under definitions provided by the International Organization for Migration (cited under Governmental and Nongovernmental Organizations), immigrants are those who move to a nation of which they are not nationals, with the intention of permanent settlement. Migrant is a broader term that applies to those who freely choose to move from one country to another for various reasons, often for improved economic opportunities and not necessarily for permanent residency. Undocumented immigrants or irregular migrants are those who have entered a country without the documentation required for legal status. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (cited under United Nations), an individual is a refugee once he or she has fulfilled the following requirements, as laid out under the 1951 Convention: the individual is outside his or her country of origin or residence and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, group membership, or political beliefs. In working with immigrants, it is important to look at macro policy and legal issues in regard to immigrants and refugees and micro issues relating to direct service to immigrant individuals, families, and communities. Often, an analysis of premigration, transit, and postmigration experiences is helpful in social work practice with immigrants and refugees (see Pine and Drachman 2005, cited under Women, Families, and Children).

Introductory Works

These general articles on immigrants provide an introductory framework that supports the study of immigrant populations from a policy/practice perspective. Shier, et al. 2011 identifies the increasing number as well as diverse themes of publications on immigrants and refugees. Engstrom and Okamura 2007 calls for the development of a specialization in social work specifically on immigrant and refugee populations, while Healy 2004 proposes that a focus on immigrant study, especially transnationalism, enhances practice. Silka 2007 looks at community challenges and opportunities in working with immigrant populations.

  • Engstrom, David W., and Amy Okamura. 2007. A nation of immigrants: A call for a specialization in immigrant well-being. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work 16.3–4: 103–111.

    DOI: 10.1300/J051v16n03_08

    Social work must develop a new field of specialization to include immigrant and refugee experiences and service needs. Important topics are differing world views, values, beliefs, lifestyles, and languages as well as theories of assimilation and acculturation, immigration laws, partnerships, and advocacy efforts that protect immigrants. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Healy, Lynne M. 2004. Strengthening the link: Social work with immigrants and refugees and international social work. In Immigrants and social work: Thinking beyond the borders of the United States. Edited by Diane Drachman and Ana Paulino, 49–67. Binghamton, NY: Haworth.

    This article discusses ways in which emphasis on the international dimensions of social work involving immigrants and refugees offers opportunities to improve practice and to enhance the relevance of international social work to the profession. The current phenomenon of transnationalism receives special attention. Also appears in Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies 2.1–2 (2004): 49–67, available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Shier, Michael L., Sandra Engstrom, and John R. Graham. 2011. International migration and social work: A review of the literature. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies 9.1: 38–56.

    DOI: 10.1080/15562948.2011.547825

    This study analyzes literature about international migration. The number of publications has increased since 1985. Articles have focused on demographics, service delivery, health and mental health needs, and macrosystemic issues. Implications for research and social work practice are discussed. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Silka, Linda. 2007. Immigrants in the community: New opportunities, new struggles. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 7.1: 75–91.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1530-2415.2007.00147.x

    Immigrant and refugee experiences at the community level are addressed. The author looks at social issues and problems from a multidisciplinary perspective. Issues such as gangs, domestic violence, housing, small businesses, health care, elders, schools, faith-based organizations, environmental issues, and arts and culture are included. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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