Abstract: Perceptions of Structural Inequality and Attitudes Towards Undocumented Immigrants Among U.S. Social Workers (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Perceptions of Structural Inequality and Attitudes Towards Undocumented Immigrants Among U.S. Social Workers

Saturday, January 18, 2020
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Yoosun Park, PhD, Associate Professor, Smith College, Northampton, MA
Maria Torres, PhD, Assistant Professor, Smith College, Northampton, MA
Andrew Rundle, DrPH, Associate Professor, Columbia University, New York, NY
Background and Purpose:  The starkly anti-immigrant policies of the current Presidential administration has authorized a new permissiveness for expressions of nationalism and xenophobia. Social work practitioners are at the frontlines of service delivery to immigrants but little is known about their views. To fill this gap in knowledge we conducted a national web-based survey designed to gather data on social workers attitudes towards immigration. Here we present data on respondents’ views on structural inequality and their perceptions of undocumented immigrants as a threat.

Methods. Individuals with a BSW and/or an MSW degree and currently employed as a social worker were eligible for participation. National, state, and local social work professional associations and organizations in all 50 states were sent recruitment materials for distribution to their memberships. Individual recruitment emails were sent to all licensed social workers in the states (N=17) with publically available licensee contact information.

Two questions solicited respondents’ views on structural inequality: 1) “Immigrants have the same opportunities for success as U.S.-born citizens” and, 2) “All immigrants, no matter their race/ethnicity or their country of origin, have equal opportunities for success in the U.S.”  We derived the Undocumented Immigrant Threat Scale (UITS) from Likert scale responses of Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree for eight statements about undocumented immigrants: (e.g. “Undocumented immigrants increase the threat of terrorism”; “The U.S. should take stronger measures to exclude undocumented immigrants”). The UITS has a range of 0 to 32, with a higher scale score indicating endorsements of statements that undocumented immigrants posed a threat to America.

Results. A surprising 31% of respondents agreed with the first statement that immigrants have the same opportunities as citizens; 29% agreed with the second statement that “race/ethnicity or their country of origin” did not affect immigrants’ chances for success. Of the 4,369 participants who completed the UITS items, 32% had a score of 0 indicating a strong disagreement with all eight negative statements about undocumented immigrants. Fifty five percent of participants had a UITS score of 1-16 indicating some endorsement of negative statements about undocumented immigrants and 13% had a UITS score of 17-32 indicating frequent endorsement of negative statements.  After adjustment for sociodemographic covariates and reported political leanings, agreement with the first statement regarding opportunities was associated with higher UITS scores (50% higher 95% CI 38%, 62%), as was  agreement with the second statement regarding opportunities (57% higher UITS score, 95% CI 44%, 71%).

Conclusions and Implications:  Contrary to established knowledge that racism and xenophobia shape the social and economic outcomes of immigrants in the U.S., especially undocumented immigrants, nearly a third of our respondents denied that immigrants are disadvantaged, or that disadvantage is related to race/ethnicity and national origin. That these respondents also viewed undocumented immigrants as more threatening than did respondents who did acknowledge the existence of inequality is an unsurprising but troubling finding. Deepening social worker’s knowledge of structural barriers faced by immigrants, particularly as related to race and national origin, may improve outcomes for immigrants seeking social services.