Abstract: Beyond Borders: School Social Workers in an Era of Immigration Enforcement (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Beyond Borders: School Social Workers in an Era of Immigration Enforcement

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Benjamin Roth, PhD, Associate Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Leticia Villarreal Sosa, PhD, Professor, Dominican University, Chicago, IL
Sophia Rodriguez, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland
Background and Purpose

The rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric increasingly constructs immigrants as undeserving, and it is adversely affecting immigrant children’s development and learning. Schools are social institutions where these perceptions can be challenged and, ideally, where social inequalities confronting immigrant students can be ameliorated. To this end, a range of school personnel directly influence the social-emotional and learning needs of vulnerable immigrant students. Yet, while extensive research has explored the impact of teachers in immigrant-serving schools, we know less about school social workers (SSWs) in these contexts. How do they shape school climate to be more welcoming to immigrant students? What strategies do they use to direct immigrant students to key resources relevant to educational success? What constraints impede their ability to do so?

Our study addresses these questions by using a conceptual framework informed by Gloria Anzaldúa’s borderlands theory. Borderlands theory arguably views SSWs as potential “nepantleras,” or agents of social change for immigrant students within (and outside of) schools. As nepantleras, SSWs mediate the “borderlands” within schools, brokering resources and fostering new narratives that acknowledge and value the intersecting identities of immigrant students. However, they do so within the social, cultural, and financial constraints of their school context. Understanding these limitations and the strategies SSWs use to navigate them will provide insight into how schools challenge—or reproduce—the social inequalities confronting immigrant students today.


This paper is based on in-depth interviews collected from April – June 2019 with a convenience sample of school social workers in immigrant-serving schools (n=20). These exploratory interviews were the basis for a national survey of SSWs that is currently underway, and inform our understanding of SSWs as nepantleras. The interview guide examines how SSWs assess the needs of immigrant students, make decisions about referrals, and choose who should receive which types of resources. In-depth interviews ranged from 30 – 90 minutes and were audio-recorded and professionally transcribed. We used nVivo to thematically code the transcribed interviews with borderlands theory as our framework.


Respondents describe innovative programming and service delivery solutions, as well as profound institutional dysfunction and leadership problems. Within this tension, some SSW respondents have developed a perspective that reflects core tenets of a nepantlera paradigm. This perspective of immigrant students guides their interventions and, at times, serves as a justification for actions that may be viewed by some as “subversive.” Our results map this range of actions and advance our empirical understanding of SSWs as nepantleras.

Conclusions and Implications

This timely study addresses the urgent need to interrupt the stratification of resources for recently arrived, unauthorized, and mixed-status-family immigrant students. This new knowledge addresses the persistent inequalities and restricted opportunities that immigrant students encounter when they cross borders of all types, whether in schools or outside of them, and how SSW’s can work to work to challenge inequities in the schools, create more responsive systems, and intervene at all Tiers with an approach that considers the lived realities and contexts of immigrant students.