Working for Equal Opportunities

Isabel CastilloIsabel Castillo’s residency status limits her professional opportunities in social work. Photo: Jon Styer/Eastern Mennonite University

Isabel Castillo would like nothing more than to become a social worker, having graduated with a BSW from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., in 2007.

But because she was brought to America at age 6 with her undocumented parents from Mexico, Castillo’s residency status blocks her opportunities to work in the social work profession.

She is among tens of thousands of young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the U.S. and want to obtain lawful employment after receiving their education.

“How can you blame a child for being brought here to be raised?” said Castillo, who lives in Virginia.

The 25-year-old is telling her story to raise support for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors or DREAM Act, HR 1751/S 729.

Castillo said social workers need to contact their representatives in Washington to co-sponsor the legislation that would provide an earned, legal pathway to citizenship for many undocumented youth who pursue higher education or serve in the U.S. military.

“Social workers are here to help others and empower them and give them a voice,” Castillo said. “They can be the voice that we can’t have.”

NASW recently issued an advocacy alert to members about the bill and posted a July report by the association’s Human Rights and International Affairs Department called “Social Workers Support Young Immigrants’ DREAMs.”

In addition, NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark, on behalf of the association, sent a letter to U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., thanking him for his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform and his efforts to encourage both parties to join in fixing the nation’s immigration system.

“NASW supports federal, state and local policies that uphold and support equity and human rights for immigrants,” the letter stated.

According to the Human Rights report, each year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school in the U.S. Since many of these students are brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were young, many are not aware of their undocumented status.

“They have integrated themselves into American culture and have invested in their future through education,” the report states. “Most of these youth have no memory of the country in which they were born and consider themselves American in every sense.”

Some may question why these students do not apply for lawful permanent residency in order to avoid the threat of deportation. In order for that to happen, they would have to return to their country of birth, fill out an application and wait years for processing. They also risk rejection, the report states.

“For most undocumented students, living in the U.S. with its associated risks seems a better alternative to living in a country they do not remember or consider home,” the report explains.

Castillo and fellow social work graduate Julia Solow visited with NASW Virginia Chapter Executive Director Debra Riggs earlier this year to garner support from the chapter.

Riggs said Castillo’s story inspired her to have the chapter join in a rally and sponsor a Public News Radio network story about Castillo’s plight. Riggs said the legislation parallels social work’s core values. Everyone should have the same opportunities for success, she said.

Solow said she decided to get involved in supporting the DREAM Act after attending one of Castillo’s speaking engagements. She said she mentors a Mexican-American girl whose siblings are undocumented immigrants.

“Current immigration law causes people like Isabel and my mentee’s siblings to live in the shadows, to live in fear of deportation to countries they know nothing about,” Solow said. “No solution has ever been more clear to me than the DREAM Act. I had to get involved.”

Castillo said she is the founder of DREAMActivist Virginia and devotes time to sharing her story at different events to broaden support of the legislation.

“I want to encourage social workers to advocate for us,” Castillo said. “You can make a difference.”

Visit the Undocumented Students Action and Resource Network.