We present a discourse analysis of social work practitioners' commentary on undocumented immigrants. Analyzing 198 open-ended comments, we explore the discursive mechanisms practitioners employ to construct undocumented immigrants and their professional responsibilities towards them.
Data were collected from an online survey exploring practitioners' attitudes toward immigration and immigrants. A convenience sample of 1,124 post-BSW and/or post-MSW practicing social workers in 47 states participated in this exploratory survey. The 82 item survey included one open-ended question: “do you have any final comments?” which elicited 198 comments ranging in length from a single sentence to paragraphs of up to 450 words. The majority exhibited a troubled, if not conflicted, stance on the topic of undocumented immigration. We use the views expressed in these texts as exemplars of the kinds of challenges social work practitioners encounter in their daily practice.
Ngai (2004) notes that Americans “like to believe that our immigration policy is generous, but we also resent the demands made upon us by others and we think we owe outsiders nothing” (p. 11). Invoking the discourses of law, citizenship, and nationalism, many respondents in our sample constructed undocumented immigrants as outsiders; aliens in both legal, social, and cultural terms, existing beyond the borders of the national community while living in its midst. Such constructions rendered social services as status-dependent goods, deserved by legitimated members of society and unmerited by those made illegitimate by law. Other respondents, conversely, constructed undocumented immigrants as victims rather than perpetrators of transgressions. Critiquing U.S. policies, domestic and foreign, and economic structures, national and international, rather than individual migrants, such constructions utilized the discourses of human rights to formulate basic social services as an inalienable right rather than a status-dependent endowment.
Conclusions and Implications:
There were profound differences of opinion among respondents, as there is in the nation at large, about what constitutes the “root of the problems,” the “real solutions” and, most importantly, who can be included in “our population.” These views are illustrative of the ways in which the profession determines inclusion and exclusion, writ large in national immigration policies and laws but played out in the arenas of social work and social services. Disparate views among practitioners highlight tensions in the profession's relationship to law, social policies, as well as its own ethics and identity. The differences in the respondents' construction of undocumented immigrants is, in other words, at heart a conflict of how the values and ideals are defined: where the borders of social work should be drawn to include and exclude; who is conceived as being part of the imagined community; which persons are deemed to merit the benefits of those ideals and principles. In our analysis, before social workers in the United States can or should become active in modifying the public's vision, vigorous debate, discussion, and argument geared towards the examination and clarification of its own vision(s) are necessary.
Ngai, M. M. (2004). Impossible subjects: illegal aliens and the making of modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.