The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Immigration Detention and Social Workers: Developing a Role Alongside Faith-Based Organizations

Friday, January 17, 2014: 10:30 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 102B Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Susanna J. Snyder, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
NoŽl Bridget Busch-Armendariz, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Background and Purpose: Detention is a key pillar of the contemporary US immigration system that aims to deport those without authorization and deter other migrants from arriving. In 2010, $1.7 billion was spent on immigration detention and 33,000 people are currently held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on any given night. Detention causes extreme isolation and suffering for detainees and also for their families and communities. Not only are families separated, but reports have also revealed poor medical care, extensive use of solitary confinement, poor food and clothing, few activities, invasions of client-counsel privacy and lack of access to lawyers and social work professionals. Faith-based organizations (FBOs), including chaplaincies and visitation programs, have some access to those detained, but social workers have been little involved to date. Authors will present empirical data from a pilot exploratory research study, answering the questions: what work are faith-based organizations undertaking in response to immigration detention, and how could the social work profession become engaged in this crisis context?

Methods: Mixed methodology was employed, including participant observation and in-depth interviews. Twenty participants were interviewed, including staff members and volunteers with faith-based organizations as well as former detainees. Participants were recruited through word-of-mouth and email solicitation, and through use of snowball sampling. Interviews took place in person and by telephone. Conventional content analysis procedures were used to analyze interviews and to organize the data into themes (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005). Findings are grounded through the inclusion of direct quotations from participants and in order to be representative, responses that represent diverse viewpoints and activity are reported. The accuracy of the data has been tested through member checking and peer support and debriefing.

Results: Data analysis pointed to the following key findings:

  • FBOs are playing a significant and extensive role in relieving the suffering experienced by detainees and their families. A typology of this support can be constructed using a grid with two axes – direct and indirect support; and pastoral, advocacy and community-building initiatives
  • Faith is very important to many detainees, both practically and psycho-spiritually
  • The work is largely understood by those involved as to do with “making connections”
  • Social workers currently do little work with immigration detainees due to exclusionary systemic structures
  • Social workers could and should be playing a variety of crucial roles, including through case management, counseling and advocacy

Implications: These results will be of immediate use to social work practitioners seeking to assist immigration detainees, in that the work of faith-based organizations points to ideas, avenues and models for social work engagement.  The authors will make specific concrete suggestions as to how social workers could start working to support detainees. The findings also reveal the crucial importance of undertaking a more extensive funded study that would have implications for social work education and policy. This study thus directly and indirectly hopes to enact social change with and for a marginalized population.