The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Impact of Immigration Policy Tightening On California Latino Residents

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 9:30 AM
Seabreeze 1 and 2 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Maria Gurrola, PhD, Assistant Professor, California State University, Long Beach, Long Beach, CA
Cecilia Ayón, PhD, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Background and Purpose:

Historically, immigration laws have tightened and undocumented immigrants have experienced scapegoating during economic downturns or recessions in the United States. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, anti-immigrant sentiment increased. Some states have implemented more stringent immigration laws including Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia. However, states known as immigrant friendly and neighboring states are experiencing spillover effects of the hostile environment. Policy advocates and media coverage have focused their attention on states where anti-immigrant sentiment is more visible, yet other states continue to experience subtle antagonism and aggressions that are affecting immigrants’ daily activities and how they perceive themselves in this environment. New immigration laws and anti-immigrant sentiment can serve to give permission to others to discriminate against people perceived as undocumented. This research reflects the experiences of immigrants in California (neighboring state of Arizona where the most restrictive of anti- immigrant legislation, SB1070, was passed) and examines the settings where discrimination is experienced as well as how individuals are affected by discrimination.


Study participants were recruited in January 2011 from a school district in Southern California with a high number of Latino immigrants. Six focus groups were completed in Spanish with a total of 108 participants.  Participants were all Latino; 91% were immigrants with a mean of 14 years in the U.S.; 93% were female; and 71% had less than 9 years of education.  A flexible interview schedule was used. Questions inquired about the changes in the enforcement of immigration law and the impact on the participants and people they know; how these changes in policies affected their children’s future; and how do they coped with the laws and enforcement practices.


Participants reported incidents of discrimination in common settings such as work and social services agencies as well as incidents in the streets, laundromats, children’s schools and school busses, and others settings. Three major themes emerged in participant’s stories: (1) sense of self worth, participants described  how they were treated by employers and the general public leading to feelings of worthlessness; (2) discrimination by social agencies and the general public, participants experienced passive and verbal aggression by employers, social agencies and people in the streets; (3) children’s future, participants shared their worries about their children’s experiences with verbal and physical aggression at school. 

Conclusions and Implications:

Immigration policies in neighboring states are influencing immigrants residing in California.  Participants reported feelings of worthlessness, discrimination in multiple settings, and effects on children.  Practitioners need to support families and children in school settings and develop programs to help families cope and challenge discriminatory practices.  At the policy level, social workers should continue advocating for federal reform because state and local laws are having a significant impact on immigrants’ lives and well-being. Future research needs to look into the effects of immigration laws and anti-immigrant sentiment on children, their development and future aspirations.