Social Work

How to Become an Immigration Social Worker

How to Become an Immigration Social Worker
What a social work career lacks in salary potential, it makes up for in job prospects. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella April 3, 2020

More immigrants come to America than to any other country in the world. There is a considerable need for immigration social workers, but not many officially recognized ways to become one. Learn how education, specialization, and even the place you live can create opportunities to help others.

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America has long been a nation of immigrants, with a foreign-born population of over 40 million from nearly every country in the world. Almost 20 percent of the world’s migrant population lives in the United States, a staggering figure when you consider that the United States accounts for just over 4 percent of world population.

Even though America has the most immigrants in the world, those who seek refuge there today face numerous challenges. Social workers—whose calling and professional ethics impel them to advocate for social justice—help this population address those challenges. In 2019, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) officially condemned raids on immigrant families, and provided services to those who were at-risk.

The NASW recognizes 16 social work specialties; immigration is not among them. That does not mean there’s no need for immigration social workers. It just means that social workers assisting the at-risk immigrant population do so from within the strictures of other specializations, e.g., medical social work.

Find out what you can do for immigrants in this article, which discusses how to become an immigration social worker. It covers:

  • What is an immigration social worker?
  • What does an immigration social worker do?
  • Education requirements for immigration social workers
  • Licensure and accreditation for immigration social workers
  • How much do immigration social workers earn?

What is an immigration social worker?

The NASW notes that “Social workers are in a position to support immigrant children, youth, and families in accessing immigration assistance and services to ensure their safety, permanency and well-being.” While social workers are “not expected to be experts on immigration issues,” they may need to understand “immigration terminology, relief options, new policies and available resources” to assist immigrant clients.

This is particularly true for social workers who live in an area with a significant immigrant population. According to the Pew Research Center, the cities (and their surrounding areas) with the most undocumented immigrants are:

  • New York
  • Los Angeles
  • Houston
  • Dallas
  • Miami

How do social workers help immigrants? A few examples. If a refugee or immigrant child requires long-term foster care, their case might be handled by a child welfare social worker. Mental health and substance abuse social workers might help an immigrant dealing with mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse. In short, many social workers perform immigration social work as a result of practicing their specialization.

Though each of the 16 social work specialties can help immigrants, international social workers likely contribute the most. They work all over the country and world in:

  • Community health organizations
  • Hospitals
  • Schools
  • Orphanages
  • Social service agencies

International social workers often work with refugees. They can be employed by:

  • Government organizations
  • Intergovernmental agencies
  • Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)

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What does an immigration social worker do?

Many social workers provide direct services to immigrants. In 2018, for example, when children were separated from their parents at the Mexican border, some families were put under the care of social workers until their family’s immigration status was decided.

These professionals protected the parent’s and children’s rights by helping them access:

  • Legal counsel
  • Shelter
  • Transportation

Social workers also helped families keep track of required court dates and other such obligations. In addition to being a (more) humane way to handle the situation, the program cost less accommodating the same children in an ICE detention center.

An immigration social worker’s responsibilities might also include:

  • Assisting with resettlement
  • Performing crisis intervention
  • Supporting integration into a community
  • Reporting employer exploitation
  • Protecting child welfare
  • Translating and arranging for language instruction
  • Reporting domestic violence and child abuse

An article in Social Work Today recommends that social workers have the rcontact information for immigration lawyers—either from nonprofit social justice organizations or private lawyers who take pro bono cases. As a social worker, you are not expected to solve the immigration crisis alone. Much of the job is helping where you can and then using your problem-solving skills to find the next professional who can improve their situation.

The NASW acknowledges that not every social worker can become an expert on immigration, and does not expect them to. However, the standards of social work do encourage professionals to expand their cross-cultural knowledge.

Education requirements for immigration social workers

Most immigration social workers start by earning a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) from a four-year institution. It is possible to be a social worker with just a BSW, but the best jobs require a Master of Social Work (MSW). This graduate degree typically takes two years to complete as a full-time student, three or more years part-time. It can be completed online, in person, or through a hybrid program (a combination of both).

If you know you want to work with immigrants, one of the best things you can do is learn another language. You might start by earning a minor or double majoring (in social work and a foreign language) for your undergraduate degree. Some graduate schools even offer MSW students a dual-degree option. Knowing Spanish can be a huge asset—nearly 41 million people in America speak Spanish at home.

Some social work programs—usually those in areas with significant immigrant populations—offer specific concentrations for those who want to work with immigrants. The Silberman School of Social Work at CUNY Hunter College offers a Field of Practice (FOP) specialization called Global Social Work and Practice with Immigrants and Refugees (GSWPIR). The program is designed “to inform learning and practice with families and communities wherever they are located, globally or in the US urban environment, with special attention to all forms of migration.” Students complete the FOP during the second year of an MSW.

Courses offered in this program include:

  • Spirituality and Healing
  • Social Work and the Latino Community
  • Clinical Practice with Immigrants and Refugees
  • Social Work with Veterans and Military Service Members
  • Multicultural Social Work Practice
  • Neighborhood Lab: Strengthening Community Capacity

Other schools that offer courses and specializations in immigration social work include:

Accredited master’s degree programs in international social work include:

All of these programs require a practicum (i.e., a fieldwork internship), which provides social work students hands-on experience in the specialization of their choice. An immigration social work program will help place students in a situation where they can support immigrants. Potential locations include:

  • Community health organizations
  • Hospitals
  • Family health institutions
  • Bicultural centers
  • Human rights organization

Having practicum experience in the social work field of your choice will be extremely useful when it comes time to apply for a job. It can also be an opportunity to explore a practice area that you wouldn’t otherwise pursue. All accredited BSW and MSW degree programs require students to complete fieldwork hours to qualify for graduation. CSWE-accredited BSW programs consist of at least 400 hours hours of “supervised field experience,” while MSW programs require 900 hours.

Social work students should make sure that their program is accredited by the Council of Social Work Education (CSWE). Completing an accredited program is important—not only because it provides a higher level of education, but also because of social work licensure requirements.

Licensure and accreditation for immigration social workers

After completing a degree, social workers need to obtain a state license to practice. Each state has its own requirements, but most involve passing the requisite licensure exam from the the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Most states offer a general license, which you can earn after completing a bachelor’s degree.

Some states, such as New York, only offer licenses to those with a graduate degree. These professionals are called Licensed Master Social Workers (LMSW). Being an LMSW allows you to work in a clinical setting, as long as you are supervised by a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). BSW-holders can earn a general license, but you’ll want to become an MSW if you’re looking for a career in clinical social work.

Most social workers don’t become LCSWs, but you might consider it if you want to provide mental health services without supervision—say, through a private therapy practice. Earning an LCSW usually involves completing at least 3,000 more supervised fieldwork hours over two or more years.

You can find a complete list of all state licensing requirements on the ASWB website.

Some social workers earn specialty credentials in addition to their license—usually after gaining some work experience . These credentials help you further specialize in your career field and develop an expertise that is valuable to both your career prospects and the people you are trying to help.

There aren’t any credentials designed specifically for immigration social workers as there are for school social workers or substance abuse social workers, but earning one can still be useful. For instance, if you are an immigration social worker that focuses on getting immigrants access to medical care, you might find a health care certification to be beneficial.

Other certifications that immigration social workers might find useful are:

Earning a specialty credential usually requires:

  • A master’s degree (though there are some for bachelor’s degree-holders)
  • State-recognized license
  • Supervised fieldwork hours

How much do immigration social workers earn?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual income for social workers is $49,470, with the bottom 10 percent earning $30,750 or less and the top 10 percent earning at least $81,400. The average annual salary for international social workers is $60,481, per ZipRecruiter.

Some social work careers command a high annual salary. Private therapists and professors of social work can earn $100,000 a year or more. Social work administrators make closer to $90,000. If you want to work directly with immigrants, however, you will likely not come close to any of these salaries.

What a social work career lacks in salary potential, it makes up for in job prospects. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the entire social work field is expected to grow by 11 percent from 2018 to 2028, nearly twice the growth rate of the job market as a whole. These numbers do not reflect individual areas of social work. For example, the field of healthcare social work projects to grow by 17 percent, but calculations for child, family, and school social show only 7 percent growth.

There are no hard projections for immigration social work. Still, given the number of new immigrants coming into the country every year, one can extrapolate that there will soon be a need for even more immigration social workers.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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