Abstract: "Better, Smarter, More Nimble": Exploring Social Work's Role in Legal Services for Asylum-Seekers (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

720P "Better, Smarter, More Nimble": Exploring Social Work's Role in Legal Services for Asylum-Seekers

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
David Androff, PhD, Associate Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Cherra Mathis, MSW, Doctoral Student, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Background & Purpose:

Increasingly xenophobic and restrictionist polices threaten asylum-seekers’ rights and wellbeing. Legal service organizations address immigrants’ and refugees’ legal needs, such as the right to due process. Social workers collaborate with attorneys to address their needs beyond the courtroom. Little research explores the nature of social work practice with lawyers defending immigrant and refugee rights, nor its impact on legal service organizations.

This qualitative study fills this gap by exploring social work practice collaborations with lawyers in the field of immigrant and refugee rights. The study objective was to understand the nature and function of interdisciplinary social work and legal collaborations in serving detained asylum seekers. The research question asked what value do social workers bring to a legal services organization?


A qualitative exploratory design permitted exploration of legal services staff experiences (n=26). Five semi-structured focus groups were conducted with twenty-six key informants from a legal service organization that provides free legal and social services to asylum-seekers in immigration detention. Snowball sampling was used to identify and recruit participants. The sample included 12 social workers, 9 legal professionals, and 6 administrators. The five focus groups were organized by professional role; two were conducted with social workers, two with legal professionals, and one with administrators. Participants were asked to describe social work practice and its role within the organization, and to highlight positive and negative experiences with social work and legal collaborations. Focus groups were conducted via Zoom, audio-recorded, and transcribed. Coding and thematic analysis was conducted with web-based qualitative data analysis software.


Participants identified that social workers collaborated with lawyers in interprofessional teams to advance client rights. Findings revealed the benefits of social work practice at the level of individual clients, legal teams, and the organization itself. Participants described how social workers helped clients navigate immigration court, documented and addressed abuses in detention, and connected them to medical care, housing, and other social services upon release. Participants reported that social workers assisted attorneys with legal representation through facilitating client interviews, providing social work expertise for the court, and managing secondary traumatization. Finally, participants explained how the social workers added value to the organization itself to become more trauma-informed and flexible in responding to rapidly changing policy and client needs. Participants also identified several challenges in social work and legal collaborations, including ethical tensions, insufficient role-delineation, miscommunication, and high stress caseloads.

Conclusions & Implications:

This study indicates how social workers can complement and amplify legal services for a more holistic, comprehensive representation in immigration court. The findings reveal the potential and challenge for social work to add value to immigration legal services. This study supports the integration of social workers into more legal service organizations and contexts where both clients and attorneys would benefit from holistic, flexible, trauma-informed social work practice. More social work practice is needed to protect asylum-seekers. Based on this study, further research should investigate client outcomes to better understand the impact of social work practice in legal services.