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Immigrants in New York City - A Social Work Perspective
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Immigrants in New York City – A Social Work Perspective

Elaine P. Congress, DSW, LCSW, Associate Dean and Professor, Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service

November 2009


Since Henry Hudson first landed in Mannahatta 400 years ago, New York City has always been the destination for immigrants from around the world. While immigrants have settled all over the United States even in rural communities, New York still continues to be home for more immigrants than any other place in the United States. Now over 36% of New Yorkers are foreign born with another 30% children of immigrants making the majority of New Yorkers either first or second generation immigrants.

Who are these New New Yorkers?

We always knew that New York is unique and this is true of our immigration patterns. First, New York City immigrants come from different countries than immigrants elsewhere in the United States. New York immigrants are most likely to come from, in descending order: Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica, Guyana, Mexico, Ecuador, Haiti, Trinidad, Columbia and Russia, while immigrants in areas outside New York City are from Mexico, China, Philippines, India, Vietnam, Cuba, Korea, Canada, El Salvador and Germany. Also in New York, no one immigrant group makes up the majority, while in other cities often most of the immigrants come from a specific country. New York also has more non Hispanic Caribbean immigrants than any other city in the country.

A century ago when immigrants came to the United States, they emigrated permanently, often severing contact forever with friends and families in their countries of origin. Not so now in an era of transnationalism when immigrants frequently travel back and forth between New York City and their countries of origin and maintain cultural roots in both countries.. Emails, cell phone, as well as increased affordable air travel has made it possible for immigrants to pursue continual verbal and physical contact with friends and families in their countries of origin.

Why do people immigrate?

When we work with immigrants, we often are primarily concerned about the current situation of clients, but in order to fully understand immigrants we must also think about what their experiences were like in their countries of origin. Did they live in a rural or urban environment? What were the push factors (social economic, political, and religious) or pull factors (increased employment opportunities, family connections) that contributed to their decision to emigrate? Because of climate change that has led to increased flooding or draught in developing countries, many immigrants who are no longer able to pursue their traditional livelihoods have been forced to leave their homelands. Did they leave their countries of origin to come directly to the United States or were they internal migrants having left their original homes to migrate to urban areas within their own countries before migrating to the United States? Did key family members – younger children or spouses – remain in their homelands?

A current immigration pattern is that often one parent comes to the U.S. in search of work and may be joined later by another spouse and/or children. In addition to understanding of the current immigrant situation and that in the country of origin, it is also helpful to understand the transit experience of immigrants. For some it may be a long plane ride, while for many, especially for those “south of the border”, it may be a dangerous, unpleasant desert crossing.

Who works with immigrants?

All New York City social workers! Social workers who work in settlement houses will find that almost all of their clients are immigrant families, but regardless of the setting, any New York City social worker will find that many of their clients are immigrants. Social workers who work in the school may meet children who have recently immigrated to the US and are challenged by adjusting to a new cultural and school environment. In outpatient clinics, as well as hospitals, social workers will work with immigrant patients and their families who may have questions and concerns about their health problems and may have difficulties in accessing adequate health care. In mental health settings immigrants may wonder how “a talking cure” will help them address current stressors in adjusting to life in a new country. Social workers who work in child welfare settings may find immigrant clients who have different child rearing beliefs than many native born Americans.

Can social workers be expected to understand cultural differences of each of their clients? As one social worker who worked in a large municipal hospital once said to me, “It is only noon and today I have already seen patients from ten different immigrant groups How can I understand the different cultural backgrounds of all these clients?” Social workers do not have to know everything about each culture. They must begin, however with an understanding of their own culture and then be open to new learning about the culture of their clients. It is important not to make assumptions and to ask clients about their own values and perceptions of the world in beginning work with immigrant clients. Ecomaps and genograms can be helpful tools, but I developed another method out of my need to identify and understand cultural differences on a deeper level during my years as a mental health clinical practitioner. In the 1990s, I developed the culturagram to help individualize and avoid generalization about culturally different clients and families. If you would like more information and a copy of the culturagram, please contact me at congress

Undocumented Immigrants in New York City

As you know, the United States has had an uneven pattern in welcoming new arrivals. Undocumented immigrants are particularly at risk as they are often denied needed social service and medical care and are continually in danger of family separation and deportation. New York City to its credit has adopted Proposition 124 that states that while public employees can ask about legal status in order to determine eligibility for financial and social services, this information can not be reported to the Department of Homeland Security. Social workers and NASW have had a long history of fighting against social injustice and promoting the well being of all people. Realizing that undocumented immigrants were often subject to discrimination and injustice, NASW last year added “Immigrant Status” to its Code of Ethics as an area where social workers should work to combat discrimination and bias.

What can social workers do to advocate for the rights of immigrant clients?

First, as the landscape of immigration legislation is continually changing, it is important for social workers to have up-to-date information. A website such as the one sponsored by the National Immigration Law Center ( is most helpful in finding out the latest legal and policy news that affect immigrants. Second, social workers can advocate both within their agencies as well as in the larger society. In working with immigrant clients and families in an agency, social workers can make sure that their clients receive all social services they are entitled to and also educate other agency staff about the values and needs of their immigrant clients. They can make referrals to lawyers who specialize in immigrant law and can help clients navigate the complex ever-changing immigration laws. Beyond their agencies, social workers can become involved with advocacy groups that work to improve the welfare of immigrant families. National NASW has had a special committee that focused on education and advocacy for immigrants. A copy of the Immigrant Toolbox created by this committee can be found on the National NASW website (

Currently, there is no special committee at NASW-NYC that focuses on immigrants, but many committees address different issues with immigrants. PACE endorses candidates for political election and social workers can make sure that endorsed candidates are committed to promoting the rights of immigrant families. The Disaster and Trauma Committee looks at the effects of trauma on immigrants around the world, as well as locally. New professionals’ concerns about promoting a bilingual, bicultural workforce have led many to pursue Spanish language education.

Beginning in settlement houses over a century ago, social workers have had a long history in working with immigrants. The work and struggle continues in the 21st century as social workers strive to address the unmet needs of immigrant clients, advocate for their wellbeing, and promote their right to live in the United States without bias and discrimination.

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