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School Social Work, Immigration and Citizenship

School Social Work, Immigration and Citizenship

In 2020 39,000 adults and 3,600 unaccompanied children were detained in over 218 immigration centers across the United States. None of these adults and children were detained for any criminal offense, they were being held due to their undocumented immigration status (Sawyer & Wagner, 2020). This ongoing human rights violation is attached to a history of racist, imperialist ideology, and policymaking in the United States.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has made several statements pertaining to citizenship and immigration policy. The most recent statement referenced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. In the statement, NASW uplifted the importance of the legislation while underlining its shortcomings. For example, the legislation does not address access to healthcare or other social services for undocumented immigrants.

This focus on both legal status and access to social services reflects the complexity of citizenship. Specifically, that while legal status is important, citizenship reflects documentation as well as the right to fully participate and be protected in society.

Political scientist TH Marshall (1950) outlined three components to citizenship- civil, political, and social. Civil citizenship includes protected individual freedoms, political citizenship includes the right to vote and run for public office, and social citizenship includes the right to fully participate in society. In the context of this definition, school social work’s engagement with citizenship includes the rights of undocumented students in public schools as well as students’ ability to enact the rights of citizenship. The ability to enact the rights of citizenship remains racially stratified in the United States even amongst people with legal status. For example, the right to justice, the ability to vote, and the ability to fully participate in society are constrained by structural and institutional racism.

While social work’s engagement with citizenship and immigration dates back to the mid 19th century (Park, 2006), this article will focus on visiting teachers' movement’s engagement with immigration in the early 20th century. The article will open by outlining the immigration policy and White nativist ideological landscape of the period. Next, the article will provide an example of the conflicting discourses within the visiting teachers' movement. Specifically, the visiting teachers' movement stated that education was a right for immigrant children and children of immigrants. However, the ways the visiting teachers' movement spoke about, wrote about, and interacted with immigrant communities was pathologizing.

Anti-Immigration Policy in the Early 20th Century

The visiting teachers' movement was defined by its ability to address the conditions of public schools, codify philosophies of morality, and develop “…methods of dealing with various types of maladjustments…” in children and families (Oppenheimer, 1924, page 20). The values identified-the role of schooling, philosophies of morality, and dealing with individual “maladjustments”- reflected the profession’s use of casework in schools. As outlined in the first article in this series, American society at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was in flux.

In the midst of hyperbolic, racialized fear, the visiting teachers' movement professionalized by advertising casework as a scientific form of social control.

In addition to impacting direct practice, the racialized fear influenced immigration policy. At the end of the 19th century, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. Despite Chinese workers being a small minority of the United States population on the West coast, declining economic opportunity was attributed to Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act suspended Chinese immigration and denied citizenship to people of Chinese descent. The Chinese Exclusion Act was intended for 10 years but was extended and would not be repealed for another 61 years. As the first significant restrictive form of anti-immigrant legislation in the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act marked a period of intense White nativist ideology and policy in the United States

The White nativist sentiment continued into the 20th century as over 15 million immigrants came to the United States between 1900 and 1915. The majority of these immigrants arrived from non-English speaking Eastern and Southern European countries. Further, the mass movement of people at the beginning of the 20th century was not only due to immigration. Beginning in 1915, millions of Black Southern residents began settling in Midwestern and Northern cities. This movement, called the Great Migration, would continue into the late 20th century.

These mass movements of people challenged America’s post Reconstruction racial and economic categories (Brown, 2004). The potential disruption to the racist and economically oppressive social order increased White nativist sentiment and coalesced into the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924. These acts particularly targeted non-European immigrant groups. For example, though the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924 limited immigration generally, the legislation privileged European immigrants. The act banned immigration from Asia and barred people of Asian descent from citizenship. The stated purpose of restricting immigration and citizenship was to uphold the status of Whiteness in American society.

The White nativist ideology and restrictive immigration policy were a critical part of the historical context the visiting teachers' movement professionalized in. While the visiting teachers' movement publicly stated that immigrant children, particularly European immigrant children, should have access to education. The visiting teachers' movement often expressed their advocacy through pathologizing discourse. This discourse reinforced stereotypes of helplessness and framed public education as an institution of social control.

Example of Conflicting Discourse in the Visiting Teachers Movement

In an article about social work from 1875-1924, Dr. Yoosun Park stated that the profession “viewed immigrants not as full citizens but as dependent, often abject, and also exotic subjects who needed to be cleaned, educated, civilized, and Americanized in order to become viable members of society” (page 725). Throughout the article Park details the tension between social work’s advocacy and direct work with immigrants. While social work spoke out against anti-immigrant legislation and educated the public on the needs of immigrant groups, the profession still regarded immigrant communities as having fundamental deficiencies.

This tension between advocacy for immigrant communities and the belief that those communities had inherent deficiencies was prevalent throughout the visiting teachers' movement. The 1926 excerpt from the Bulletin below comes from an issue on the visiting teachers' movement in Minnesota. The article is titled “The Visiting Teacher and Immigrant”. The article demonstrated the contradiction between advocating for immigrant families while simultaneously degrading immigrant communities. The excerpt below opens with a statement about immigrants’ traditions and languages, stating that Americanization will not come quickly, “but changed they finally become; for in the midst of the each of these foreign communities, in every city, town, and village, the public schools stand solid.” The excerpt of the article closes with “There is no American institution which has a closer, a more constant contact with our foreign families than has the school”. The combination of these quotes reflects the visiting teachers' movement’s intention of being a support to immigrant families as well as the belief that public education was an important setting of social control and that immigrant families needed to fundamentally change.

Excerpt from “The Visiting Teacher and the Immigrant”

The article continues to describe a European immigrant Mother. Notably, the article is not speaking about one particular case. Instead, the article is broadly speaking about immigrant Mothers, “And this same mother, with skin sunburnt and wrinkled, and hardly any teeth at the early age of forty, goes on..”. The generalizations about appearance and parenting practices reinforced pathologizing stereotypes about immigrant Mothers. Further, this underlines the framing that the Mothers had inherent deficiencies as caregivers that needed to be adjusted. This calls back to the visiting teachers' movement’s focus on codifying philosophies of morality and racialized use of casework.

Excerpt continued

While the stereotyped description of immigrant Mothers was evoked in the visiting teachers' movement for the stated purposes of service and advocacy, the discourse the profession participated in is not distant from anti-immigrant cartoons of the period. Below is an 1890 anti-immigration cartoon. The descriptions of immigrant Mothers above and the image of the immigrant man below are eerily similar. While the stereotypes are being used for different purposes they still reproduce harmful discourse that frames immigrants as inherently unfit for citizenship.

This is an anti-semitic cartoon from 1890 that shows America as Uncle Sam turning its noise at immigrants (

Within this policy and ideological landscape, the visiting teachers' movement positioned themselves as the profession that would be best able to adjust select immigrant groups. Notably, the visiting teachers’ movement was silent on topics of anti-Asian violence and anti-Asian immigration policy during the period. While there was much dialogue and many published case examples about adjusting the inherent deficiencies of European immigrant communities, there was no substantive engagement with Asian immigrant communities in the archives. This silence reflects the racialized sediments within society and the visiting teachers' movement about which groups could become White and have access to full citizenship (civil, political, and social).


This article builds on the first piece in the series on casework in the early 20th century. Casework was frequently used to adjust the perceived deficiencies of immigrant families. At times the visiting teachers' movement appeared benevolent about the change process and other times much more aggressive: “[the visiting teacher] can learn to plumb the depths of the foreign-born child’s problem…” and “Why is it unreasonable to expect immigrant parents to make an intelligent adjustment within the span of years it takes for their children to pass through the American school system?” (Hurlburt, nd).

Due to pathologizing language and preoccupation with casework, the visiting teachers’ movement was limited in its ability to act on the stated desire to advocate for immigrant communities. The combination of pathologizing language and casework made schools sites of scientific social reform and control. This historical analysis illuminates present-day challenges in school social work. The American public school system remains racially hierarchal and unaccompanied immigrant children are still being detained. While undocumented immigrant children have the right to enroll in public education, regressive immigration policies can tear them away from families and prevent them from accessing that right. Ultimately it important to reflect on school social work’s current engagement with immigrant families and consider the ways our stated intentions may not align with our discourse and practices.


Brown, L. J. (2004). The Literature of Immigration and Racial Formation: becoming White, becoming other, becoming American in the late Progressive Era. Routledge.

Hurlburt, M.E. Nd. The school and its foreign constituency. Visiting Teachers Bulletin. 10(2).

Marshall TH (1950) Citizenship and social class and other essays. London: Cambridge University Press.

National Association of Visiting Teacher. 1926. The visiting teacher and the immigrant. The Bulletin, 2(2).

Oppenheimer, J. J. (1924). The visiting teacher movement: With special reference to administrative relationships (No. 5). New York: Joint Committee on Methods of Preventing Delinquency.

Park, Y., & Kemp, S. P. (2006). “Little alien colonies”: Representations of immigrants and their neighborhoods in social work discourse, 1875–1924. Social Service Review, 80(4), 705-734.

Sawyer, W. & Wagner, P. (2020). Mass incarceration: The whole pie 2020. Prison Policy Institute.

About The Author

Samantha Guz

Samantha Guz LCSW is a doctoral student at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago. Her research interests include school social work, public education policy and politics, holistic family and adolescent wellbeing, gendered Whiteness, as well as critical feminist research and practice. Her current work is focused on alternative high schools and gendered Whiteness within the profession of social work.

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