Social Work as Immigration Justice

Robin Brown, M.A./LCSW on Sep 10, 2020

The social work core values of service, social justice, and dignity and worth of all people compel us to be deeply concerned about the treatment of undocumented immigrants in our country. While much of our attention is understandably focused on the current crisis of families separated at the Mexican border, there are vast numbers of undocumented immigrants already living here that can also benefit from our advocacy.

For the past four years, part of my clinical practice has been focused on providing support for undocumented immigrants who are in the process of seeking legal status. Unless you are an immigration attorney, the average person is unfamiliar with the intricacies of United States immigration policy. The laws are archaic and complex. A social worker does not need to be an expert on immigration law to be able to provide an important service to clients who are in the process of seeking legal status.

There are various paths through which an undocumented person can apply for legal status. The cases that I am referred are clients whose application will be strengthened by the addition of a clinical evaluation from a licensed mental health professional. The clients I see are applying for one of the following visas:

U nonimmigrant visa (U visa)

A U visa can be obtained when an undocumented client has been the victim of a qualifying crime and has cooperated with law enforcement. The victim must have suffered substantial physical or mental harm as a result of the crime.

Violence Against Women Act (VAWA)

A person can apply to become a lawful permanent resident under VAWA if they have been the victim of battery or extreme cruelty perpetrated by their spouse or ex-spouse. Extreme cruelty can include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The spouse/ex-spouse must be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. The marriage must be in good faith and not solely for immigration benefits.

Extreme Hardship Waiver

A person can apply to become a lawful permanent resident on the premise that a return to their home country (deportation) would result in extreme hardship to a qualifying relative. The qualifying relative must be a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident and cannot be a child. Most often, the qualifying relative is a spouse or aging parent. The exact definition of extreme hardship is not defined, but it can be related to the qualifying relative’s medical condition, including mental health.


Individuals seek asylum to protect themselves from persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular political group, or political opinion. Someone can apply for asylum if they have been the victim of such persecution or they fear that they will be persecuted.

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Clients work with their attorneys to complete all of the necessary forms and documentation as part of their application. Attorneys refer clients to therapists like myself who can use our interview and assessment skills to clearly and thoroughly document any relevant emotional and psychological factors that would support their application.

I have been forever changed by my work with undocumented clients. It feels like the purest form of social work – assisting a client to meet an immediate need. Oftentimes, this work also leaves me feeling conflicted. As a social worker committed to pursuing systemic social change I feel conflicted about working within a clearly unfair and oppressive system. I continue to wrestle with this tension. While I will continue to advocate for systemic change that does not place such a heavy burden on immigrants, I will also continue to work diligently, using my skills to provide the most ethical, compassionate, and helpful service to clients who are in a profoundly vulnerable state.

Robin Brown is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Chicago, IL.

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