The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

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

Navigating Without a Compass: Using Ethnographic Methods to Identify Agency Strategies for Serving Immigrants in New Growth Communities

Friday, January 17, 2014: 11:00 AM
HBG Convention Center, Room 102B Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Deirdre Lanesskog, MPA, Doctoral Student, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL
Background and Purpose:  Across the United States, so called “new growth” communities are experiencing an influx of immigrants who tend to have limited education, income, and English proficiency (Lichter & Johnson, 2009).  These primarily Latino families often require the support of human services agencies.  However, service providers in these communities typically lack the experience, the infrastructure, and the bilingual workforce which might facilitate service delivery (Hirschman & Massey, 2008).  Furthermore, existing models of service delivery to immigrants rely heavily on the presence of ample bilingual professionals, providing little guidance for agencies that struggle to recruit and retain bilingual and bicultural staff in new growth communities.  Therefore, this study sought to identify and describe the institutional arrangements which might facilitate service delivery to immigrants in new growth communities with scarce bilingual workers. 


Method:  This study used ethnographic methods and a “positive approach” to qualitative inquiry (Bogdan & Taylor, 1994) to identify and explore the adaptive and innovative practices in immigrant service delivery at a public health agency in a Midwestern new growth community.  The researcher conducted 40 hours of participant observation over three months at the agency, as well as a focus group and informal interviews with agency staff.   Extensive field notes were used to capture the everyday, mundane agency processes, worker relationships, and worker-client interactions around serving immigrants.  Frequent memo writing was used throughout the observation period to identify emerging themes and to guide further inquiry.  Peer debriefing and member checking were used throughout the study to strengthen data quality and to manage researcher bias.  The researcher used thematic analysis to analyze the data and identify the ways emerging themes related to one another.       


Results:   This study revealed two types of institutional arrangements which likely facilitate service delivery to immigrant clients in a new growth context.  First, agency practices and processes encourage a collaborative, team approach in which responsibility for immigrant clients is shared by monolingual and bilingual workers.  These practices include immediate supervisor availability for consultation, staffing patterns in which all workers spend time greeting all clients at the intake desk, and a case assignment process in which immigrant clients are assigned to workers without regard to language ability.  Second, agency culture and processes emphasize and value workers’ bilingual skills and multicultural knowledge, elevating the status of workers who possess such skills and encouraging other workers to develop these abilities.  Practices which support this culture include placing a multicultural ambassador in a highly visible position, using bilingual workers as expert consultants, and encouraging monolingual workers to emulate their bilingual colleagues. 

Conclusions and Implications:   The rapid spread of immigrants to communities unaccustomed to newcomers requires quick and innovative responses from human service providers. This study suggests that new growth agencies might better serve immigrant clients by realigning agency processes and staffing patterns to leverage the skills and expertise of a few bilingual workers while augmenting the capabilities of monolingual workers.