Imagine yourself leaving home to go to work every day thinking “Will this be the last time I see my house? Will this be the last time I see my family?”
One young woman in her 20s has worked two jobs for the last 10 years as the main breadwinner for her family of five. She soon will graduate from college. Her whole life is here in the U.S. Now she fears being sent away, sent to somewhere she does not know, from the only place she knows as home.
There are many life-impacting stories like this one. They are common because there are 800,000 young people like her, all members of the group brought here as children and promised they could remain in America through an Obama-administration program named Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
They are called the Dreamers. This month marks one year since Donald J. Trump lost the popular vote but won the U.S. presidency through an Electoral College victory. During his first year in office, his administration’s policy changes have presented many challenges for the people social workers counsel, coordinate services for or assist in many and diverse areas of their lives.
Some of the main challenges are access to affordable health care, dealing with climate change issues, and immigration and Dreamers — the last of which are now at the top of the list for many social workers, but especially those in border states.
Trump on Sept. 5 ordered an end to the DACA program in six months and said Congress should pass a replacement or it would be phased out as early as March 2018 and deportations could begin.
The impact on DACA and all these issues depends, in part, on what state you practice in, because state legislatures are dealing with the administration’s new and continually changing policies in different ways.
In California, social workers are focusing on two issues, said Rebecca Gonzales, director of government relations and political affairs for the NASW California Chapter.
The state’s 120 legislators have been “really active on immigration and health care this year,” she said. “What they’re trying to do is not protect what the (Trump) administration is doing. It’s a very progressive legislature.”
The California Values Act, which was on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk to be signed by Oct. 15, would limit state law enforcement resources from being used by federal immigration enforcement, Gonzales said. California’s immigration numbers are the largest in the nation, and its borders contain the most number of Dreamers and immigrants.
Gonzales pointed to a 2014 report from the Pew Research Center, which says 223,000 DACA-approved youths reside in the state.
“We’re hearing through social work professionals that there’s a lot of fear out there,” she said. “We’re doing everything we can do to protect them. We’re watching DACA. We’ll be watching on all fronts.”
Another bill protects sanctuary cities, which include San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.“In a lot of ways it makes California a sanctuary state,” Gonzales said.
“Of course, immigration is an ongoing issue.”One stalled bill “basically makes it harder to build the wall,” Gonzales said. “It largely prohibits doing business with contractors building the wall.”
Other bills include one that would provide grants to train public defenders working on immigrant-conviction issues, another would increase transparency in prescription drug costs and a third would prohibit local or state authorities from disclosing information to the federal government about religious affiliation, national origin or ethnicity to create, implement or enforce such a registry or database.
In the coming year, “health care is going to be an ongoing fight,” she said. “In California, people are really interested in single-payer health care.”
While a lot of people don’t see the administration’s talk about overhauling the tax system as a social work issue, Gonzales said, “if it takes a lot of money out of the system, if it slashes Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, it’s really going to affect communities — and especially those in poverty.”
The chapter continues its traditional lobbying activities, including sending letters to legislators, attending committee hearings and encouraging members to go, if they can, and talk directly to legislators or their staff, Gonzales said.
During the state’s Lobby Days, they have appointments in all of the 120 legislative offices and send in teams of eight to each.The chapter has stepped up some of its outreach and lobbying efforts because of the administration’s new policies, she said. “We’re using different ways to engage social workers,” Gonzales said. “We’re using Facebook posts to say ‘call the governor’s office’ if a bill is still on the desk. Sometimes if there are individual grassroots actions on particular issues we’re involved in, we use Facebook to let them know.”
They also have, at times, contacted local leaders and encouraged them to talk to legislators, she said. And they occasionally email members to ask them to sign an advocacy letter. The state has about 9,000 chapter members, Gonzales said.“Because of what’s going on with Trump, this year’s very different,” she said. “He’s not paying attention to us, especially with health care.”
When contacted by other groups, they’ve become engaged in those efforts, like being part of phone banks.“We usually don’t do that,” Gonzales said. And she has set up a firewall in their computer system “for our own protection.”
“With health care, we’ve gotten more involved with Washington, D.C.,” Gonzales said. “When we get calls for help, most of the time they’re about immigration and health care.”
Chapter Executive Director Janlee Wong said Dreamers face numerous issues —educational, employment, cultural, language and social justice.“For Dreamers, I think the anxiety level is quite high,” he said. “Obviously, there are some people who are depressed. I’ve also heard of some families who are planning to return to their country of origin.”
“It’s difficult to reach these people when you have this hysterical rhetoric coming from the White House and from Washington. It drives people underground. It’s a major challenge for social workers.”
Some work is informal and indirect. Some community forums have been held that address different avenues and options. “This is all unofficial — somewhat underground, so to say,” Wong said. “We may not know who’s in the audience, so we do not say who’s illegal. We want to do things confidentially and with the permission of the community.”
He has heard some people have said these programs should be advertised so more people would come and possibly be helped.“Frankly, that would be an advertisement for immigration (officials) to show up,” Wong said. “We are not going to aide and abet them.”
“That’s the big challenge for social workers — for members and non-members: How do you operate without attention, because unwanted attention can produce unwanted results.”
While the state has the largest number of undocumented people, it also has a large number of welcoming communities, he said.
“There are a lot of people whose parents, grandparents and other relatives are here,” Wong said. “They share the same language, the same culture, the same outlook. And they care and provide for the family.”
“People keep their heads down, but they can still survive in their community without going into hiding. There is concern, but people are sticking together and caring for each other.”
He said increasing polarization is “the hallmark of Trump’s policy — heighten divisions and choose sides. When you draw a line and ask people which side you want to stand on, you’re alienating half the population.”
The border wall is a good example, because it’s a physical line with a psychological concept: If you’re on the right side of the line, you’re an American, Wong said. In our culture, heightening emotion and anger is a way to get people interested, which creates “a very complicated construct for social workers because we don’t operate that way,” Wong said. “Social workers want inclusion.”
Social workers need to help Americans who feel this way get past the emotional upset and outrage, he said.“We need to engage in discussions,” Wong said. “Now we’re not doing that. We’re just picking sides. We need to have larger discussions with people about what to do to address everyone’s concerns.”
“We need to get across that all things do affect everyone, and we have to find a way to have more discussions about that. It’s tough, because people do turn off. We have our work cut out for us.”While he thinks some of his colleagues may disagree, accepting some compromises may be necessary to getting anything done.
“Social workers have a ton of ideas,” Wong said. “That’s their profession. We walk into discussions with ideas. That’s how we’re trained, and it’s what we do. When we walk in, we can’t be rigid. We should reach back to our social work roots and have an open discussion and believe in compromise.”
The day Trump signed his executive order ending the Dreamer program and giving Congress six months to fix it, NASW Arizona Chapter Executive Director Jeremy Arp posted this message on the chapter website:
“Dreamers are a valuable part of our community. They are our children, our friends, our family. As social workers we value the dignity and worth of all people, and that includes the young people who came to this country as children and for whom America has always been their home.
NASW Arizona condemns the President’s actions and urges Congress to pass comprehensive legislation that will restore the DACA program immediately. We are proud to be in solidarity with Dreamers and to them we say: we see you, we value you, and we are here to fight for you.”
If the program ends, it would affect about 27,900 Arizonans, Arp said. “The financial impact is great,” he said. “And the impact on our communities and families is even greater. We’re making sure we’re looking for a dream that doesn’t include deportation.”
“We have social workers who work directly with Dreamers, and we’re aligned with different agencies, so we’re passing along information to our social workers.”
The chapter is encouraging its members also to talk about the impact of health care changes, Arp said.
Cassidy-Graham health care bill would have had a disastrous impact on the state, affecting the 1.7 million Arizonans who are enrolled in Medicaid and CHIP. And 79 percent of Medicaid recipients are in working families.
“We fought really hard in Arizona to get expansion of Medicaid,” Arp said. “We asked members to contact their senators to make sure they know where we stand. The Arizona chapter will continue to put pressure on our elected officials in the state, too.”
“We want to make sure insurance is inclusive and it covers the maximum number of Arizonans.”
The Trump administration’s effort to expand border walls has raised environmental issues, Arp said. “Homeland Security is looking for a waiver on environmental rules on a border wall project,” he said. “We’re not an environmental justice group, but those groups have a huge problem with that.”
At issue, he said, are digging footings that potentially create environmental harm, disturbing habitats for migrating animals and potential harm to ecological systems.
“It’s a long stretch of land that’s pretty mountainous and expansive,” Arp said. “Spending that kind of money on a project like that while hurricanes and other natural disasters are hurting people is not a good policy.”
There also are political ramifications and human factors, he said. “A physical barrier between our state and the state of Sonora sends the wrong message to Mexico, one of our largest trading partners,” Arp said. “That proposal and immigration policies from the administration will vastly affect families that are transnational. Immigrant families come here to work in our community.”
The chapter website has a link to the Arizona Legislative Advocacy Handbook for Social Workers, co-written by Arp on behalf of the chapter, and the Ph.D. Social Work Scholars Club of the Arizona State University School of Social Work.
It includes government and court structures and how they operate, information on what folks in state, county and local positions do, the legislative process, listings of governmental agencies and departments, and communication and action steps social workers can take to engage in advocacy.
NASW-Texas Executive Director Miriam Nisenbaum is not certain if Democratic members of Congress will be able to work with Trump on legislation for Dreamers.
“I’d like to see a bipartisan effort to work on this, but I’m not sure if there are enough moderate voices,” she said. “I wish it were different.”
Her state has 141,000 Dreamers, according to the Dallas Morning News, and the Center for American Progress said the fiscal losses if they are deported would be $6.1 billion annually, Nisenbaum said.
The human impact can’t be measured, she said, and some members who work in various settings with these immigrants and refugees are being asked “What are we going to do now?”
The Texas chapter has about 5,500 members, and Nisenbaum estimates about 15 percent of them have asked for advice or assistance.“It’s kind of an ethical dilemma,” she said. “We don’t believe in turning these folks over. We want to continue providing services.”
“That’s the social work profession: We don’t care about papers; we want to help you if we can.”
The chapter is trying to get all members involved in the DACA challenge, said Will Francis, a registered lobbyist and government relations director for the chapter.
“Because this was an executive order, there’s only so much you can do,” he said. “We’re talking to elected officials about it. Our goal is to highlight the success stories of these children and families.”
They’re working on the grassroots level, too.“We’re encouraging our members to write op-eds, hold community forums and highlight success stories as they talk to the community,” Francis said. “We’ve really been trying to put out information to the larger public rather than the rule-makers in this case. That makes advocacy much more broad.”
“This is different from the ACA repeal act, where we encouraged them to call our legislators.”
Francis tells social workers as they talk to clients, they can empower them to speak up and talk, get them to share their stories. Or as members see many issues, they can speak on the larger view, talk about what they’re seeing with multiple clients.
“Op-eds can help,” he said. “Blogs can help. They can give talks at the community and school level.”
DACA is important for a number of reasons, Francis said.“First, this involves children who were brought here beyond their control,” he said. “That’s important. And we need people to understand that they contribute to their communities.”
But it’s larger than just that.“This is how our country was built, by people coming here to find a new and better life,” Francis said. “That’s why it’s called ‘the land of opportunity.’ It’s a disservice to DACA children, to immigration and, in truth, to the American people.”
He anticipates the state legislature will be taking up DACA next. They’ve had similar challenges with sanctuary city legislation, Francis said. He called the state’s sanctuary cities — Houston, Dallas, Ft. Worth and Austin — battlegrounds.
“The state legislature essentially banned them and said they must comply with the federal government; they must turn people over and use their jail space,” Francis said. “The people in power can be held liable if they don’t. It’s an onerous bill that’s going through legal challenge.”
A stay order lost, and the bill ultimately may go through, he said.“The Texas A.G.’s office is particularly opposed to immigrants,” Francis said. “They put out the word that if there are any complaints out there (about people being protected), he’s taking them.”
Texas has a border of 1,900 miles, and 650 miles already have some kind of fencing in place, including chain link fencing, steel walls and steel beams, Nisenbaum said, and she does not believe Trump’s wall would be a major deterrent.
“If anybody wants to get in, they’ll get in,” she said. “And it’s too expensive.”
Francis said the total pitched for the wall — $800 billion — is “an overwhelming huge amount of money,” and his concern is that could take funds away from important social issues.
Medicaid is important for Texans, Nisenbaum said. In June, it was estimated that more than 4 million were enrolled, with a separate 400,000 children enrolled in CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program).
She called the health care situation “dire,” because the state has one of the highest rates of uninsured in the country.“Social workers are dealing with the impact every day,” Nisenbaum said. “Why? Medicaid is a huge issue. The state did not do an expansion. And unfortunately, more social workers are opting to not take on more Medicaid patients because of low reimbursements rates and it takes a long time to pay.”
Also, the state has been trying to cut Medicaid for a while, Francis said.“The number of uninsured is continuing to grow,” he said. “There are more than a million people without insurance. There’s a huge coverage gap.”
Ironically, the state has a rainy day fund with more than $10 billion in it, Francis said. “That the people in power think it’s good policy to have what essentially is a huge nest egg and not use it for your people is an anathema.”
There are 250 counties in Texas, and more than 50 do not have a single clinical social worker.“Getting good mental health service in rural communities is a huge challenge,” Francis said.
They are pushing a lot of advocacy, he said, getting members to testify at hearings in the capitol and working with a coalition to get the state to implement sustainable and affordable health care. There are more than 1,000 members in the state conference.
“We’re getting our members active,” Francis said. “At the end of the day, social workers have social justice at heart.”
Environmentally, Texas is pro-business and fought against the Obama regulations, he said. “Politically, they’re shrugging off the federal government, Francis said. “They’re keeping their heads in the sand.”
Nisenbaum said Hurricane Harvey was a “perfect confluence of some really bad things.”
She enumerated some: the hurricane didn’t move much, so it dropped 51 inches of rain. Houston has haphazard zoning including flood plains and flood zones — there can be a million-dollar neighborhood two blocks away from anything, like industrial areas. It’s built around bayous that aren’t fortified. The whole area is low-lying without good, thoughtful planning or infrastructure for drainage and runoff.
Francis said the lack of zoning in Houston is “bizarre.”
“People will come back, and they’ll do the same thing,” he said. “That’s the Texas independent spirit. It serves us well in some areas. Around the environment, not so much."
”The state is “very, very anti-EPA,” Francis said. Under Obama, Texas sued the EPA more than 40 times. He said, “Gov. (Gregg) Abbott said ‘What my day is like is, I get up. I sue the federal government. I go home.’”
“That’s a direct quote,” Francis said. “I love the state I was born in, but sometimes it’s hard to do social work in this state.”
The recent hurricane left many chapter members dealing with their own trauma, Nisenbaum said.
“In fact, one of our branch leaders who was in Beaumont left to go to Utah where his wife’s family is from as the storm came in,” she said. “His wife was pregnant and they were unsure if she would have a hospital available to deliver as the rains and flooding began.”
Their home was flooded, and his wife gave birth in Utah. But their special-needs son became ill and he was hospitalized, Nisenbaum said.
“They do not know when they can return.”
“There is a lot to do for our members, and there will be for quite a while,” she said. “It is, as you can imagine, traumatic to live in a city where debris is piled high in many neighborhoods. Also, having so many folks in shock and trauma and needing services is overwhelming.”
“If DACA is canceled, it could mean that somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million beneficiaries of the program — about 50,000 of them in Florida — could be deported, many of them to countries they don’t even remember,” said Jim Akin, executive director of the NASW Florida Chapter.
He referred to a 2014 Pew Research Center review that says the state has one of the highest levels of unauthorized immigrants in the country — an estimated 925,000 in 2012. And, an Immigration Policy Center report states that about 20 percent of all Floridians are foreign-born immigrants, many of whom have become citizens.
The center said undocumented immigrants are 7 percent of the state’s workforce, and immigrants overall have $150 billion in purchasing power.
“The big topic now is the legislation Trump just did away with, so congress will have to act on Dreamers,” Akin said. “In Florida, especially southern Florida, central Florida, we’ve had quite a few people for a number of years coming in from Haiti, from Cuba, from Central and South America, so we do have a large number of students impacted by this.”
It’s the same with sanctuary cities, he said. “At the local level, our social workers are doing everything they can to help on an individual basis," Akin said. They’re directing them to the legal help they need, like visas; providing therapy; and helping with issues like depression, expectations and loss, he said.
"They’re doing the best they can for universal help with these issues,” Akin said.
In January, the chapter expects there will be bills on immigration and sanctuary cities in the state legislature.
“We’ll be talking, trying to figure out exactly what’s in those bills when they come out,” Akin said. “We work with NASW nationally to send out alerts.”
Since Hurricane Maria, more people are coming in from Puerto Rico, mainly to southwestern Florida — Naples, Fort Myers and Orlando, he said.“Basically, they’re coming from Puerto Rico to be with their families,” Akin said. “They may be coming here to live, to stay with family. We’ll see an increase in our population from Puerto Rico.”
Asked how many, he pointed to two recent news stories: In an Oct. 5 story, the New York Times reported “In Puerto Rico, two weeks after Hurricane Maria, people are still living without power or running water. Not surprisingly, one of the most precious commodities has become a ticket out.”
“Thousands of people are jamming onto the small number of scheduled flights and charter jets available. Florida alone anticipates as many as 100,000 arrivals.” And a story on Florida Today stated “Hurricane Maria left 3.4 million U.S. citizens without power in Puerto Rico. Many of them are preparing to find temporary or permanent homes in southwest Florida.”
On health care, Akin said: “In Florida, 1.4 million people enrolled in Obamacare in 2017. About 75 percent of those who enrolled get help paying for their deductibles and co-pays with subsidies called cost-sharing reductions.”
The number of Floridians using the Affordable Care Act for health care includes some social workers. The state did not do Medicaid expansions. Probably the biggest thing with the ACA is, it provides coverage for mental health services.
That’s something most didn’t have before, Akin said, although the rates paid by insurance to providers — including social workers — are “a huge battle.”
“Florida is 49th out of 50 states on mental health funding,” he said. The governor will be asking the legislature for more funding on drug issues and opioid abuse in the coming year, and Akin will request $50 million.
“Helping people with drug problems, behavioral problems, addiction — all those issues come back to mental health,” he said. “It all relates to mental health.”
The governor has made a commitment to funding. “The legislature?” Akin said. “We’ll see. They need to provide money for people to receive counseling and therapy, and insurance companies have to be willing to reimburse social workers at a reasonable rate.”
To push their agenda, the chapter has a lobbyist, they organize a legislative committee and an agenda, and they have 18 local units. “We have people go there and testify,” Akin said. “Once the session is in order, we do that day to day as we see bills come up.”
At the end of January, they have their annual LEAD (Legislative Education Advocacy) Day, which they’ve been holding for 20 years. It draws in 800, including social workers, faculty and students.
“We had a special election in the fall and had a Democrat take over a senate seat in Miami-Dade,” Akin said. “We had social workers involved in our campaign.”
He said the state government is “just not there” on environmental issues in spite of the fact Florida has some serious issues like streets flooding from rain, huge sink holes appearing and disappearing coastlines.“We could be losing quite a few coastal areas as water rises,” Akin said, “but people continue to buy beach property.
The state government is kind of like Trump — they don’t like to talk about changes in climate causing changes in the environment. And still, you see people keeping their heads in the sand.”
The border wall? “Money wasted,” he said. “It’s something Trump did to get votes, and it’s not connected to reality.”
Social worker Cheryl Aguilar specializes in immigration rights
By Alison Laurio, News contributor
Cheryl Aguilar's nontraditional entry into the social work field helped prepare her to become an articulate voice for immigrants and Dreamers.
As a reporter for a local newspaper in southern New Jersey, a Spanish language weekly, she noticed the paper was valuable to the two-county community as the primary source of information.
"I learned about the community, learned about their strengths," said Aguilar, a clinical social worker and the founder of and therapist at The Hope Center for Wellness in Washington, D.C.
"These people started from nothing, and they made great progress. They own their own businesses, they're on the city council, they're community leaders. They've overcome lots of barriers."
She started wanting to join all of the nonprofit organizations she was covering but realized she couldn't do both that and her journalism job."I switched into public relations so I could work for a nonprofit and volunteer at all the other things," Aguilar said.
She worked on various issues, including immigration at the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., tackling its issues on supporting people of color and communicating with the media on its immigration campaign.
"I became more connected with the immigration community, learning their struggles — like access to resources, living in the shadows and fear of being deported," Aguilar said. Her path to social work private practice included being an advocate for more mental health services especially for young people.
She was working with youths for Project Bridges when "my role switched," Aguilar said. "In addition to being a trainer, I became someone they told problems to.
"While speaking with one youth, she said, "Let's go talk to a counselor."
"The kid looked at me and said 'I want to talk to you,'" Aguilar said. "Eventually, I came back to the local level, and now I'm involved in both social work and immigration."
The profession is responding to immigration issues and the plight Dreamers face, she said.
“Already social workers across the country are taking part, attending rallies and working with groups that are under-served," Aguilar said. "Now, I'm trying to mobilize social workers to do more collectively."
She helped start a group in Washington called Social Workers United for Immigration Rights, which met Oct. 3 at NASW headquarters.
It was convened and co-led by NASW-D.C. Metro Chapter Executive Director Michael Francum; NASW Human Rights and Social Justice Manager Melvin Wilson; and Aguilar, an NASW-D.C. member, former board member and Latino Social Workers Organization D.C. lead.
"We had our first meeting," Aguilar said. "So far, there are more than a dozen who want to be part of collective reform."
Social workers from all levels, areas and fields came to show their interest and give their ideas on what social workers can do to help, she said.Aguilar also is speaking out with her writer's voice.
Her article, Six Actions Social Workers Can Take to Stand with Dreamers, was published on socialworkhelper.com in September, has been posted on several NASW chapter websites.
In it, her recommendations are: create healing spaces for DACA recipients; provide pro bono or discounted counseling; activate your social work-affiliated organizations; join organizations and actions to support Dreamers; share your support in social media; and donate.
"Social workers already do a lot and are moving the needle with what we do," Aguilar said. "Together we can do a lot more. We already are in front with social justice, and we have the power, the knowledge and the skills."
Dream Act of 2017
On July 20, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced the Dream Act of 2017, which directs the Department of Homeland Security "to cancel removal and grant lawful permanent resident status" for Dreamers. Its conditions include that the youths must have been in the country for four years and were younger than age 18 when they arrived. The bill has been read and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Full information on the bill is at: www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/1615/actions