Immigration & Refugee Social Work in North Carolina

Written by Jack Levinson

green card

The immigration process in the United States can be brutally difficult for individuals and families seeking a new home. From the complex, confusing bureaucracy of the immigration system itself to the challenging process of finding safety and shelter, those who migrate to the U.S. face tremendous obstacles, often without guidance or support. Even more heart-wrenching, many of these people have fled dangerous circumstances or come from communities living in dire poverty. Though many come to the U.S. looking for a better life, the experiences of immigrants can bring in a new chapter of turmoil.

If your heart goes out to those who are navigating the immigration process, becoming an immigration social worker will put you in a position to make a true difference.

Immigration and refugee social workers provide practical and emotional resources for those who are making their way through the immigration process. Understanding the complex needs of those who have just arrived in the U.S., social workers working with immigrants can provide services that make the American dream possible for those who need to resettle their lives.

There are many opportunities for immigrant and refugee social workers in the United States, including in the state of North Carolina. This article will help those who are interested in tapping into these opportunities learn more about the history of the field, top immigrant and refugee social work jobs, what salary you can expect in North Carolina, and more.

The State of Immigration in the U.S. Today

There are millions of immigrants in the United States, many of them undocumented. According to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS) 1-year Public Use Microdata Sample (as consolidated by KFF), there are 43 million immigrants in the United States. Of this large swath of the American population, 19 million are noncitizens.

Indeed, the definition of immigrants in the U.S. is wide ranging, including naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, people with temporary visas, unauthorized immigrants, and refugees and asylees. From this information alone it is clear that immigrants as individuals and communities cannot and should not be treated as a singular bloc, but rather as a diverse range of people hailing from different backgrounds, many of them facing an equally large variety of needs.

Immigrants are deeply embedded in the American workforce and economy, regardless of their documentation status. Immigrants pay hundreds of billions of dollars in taxes annually (as reported by the American Immigration Council) and provide indispensable labor in industries of all types. Despite this, immigrants to the U.S. are met with immense challenges when they move here, creating the need for immigration social workers.

Challenges for Immigrants and Refugees in the U.S.

There would be no United States without immigrants, but that does not mean the experience of immigrants and refugees in America is easy. There are numerous difficulties immigrants are faced with, including but not limited to:

For those who are undocumented, these emotional stressors also extend to the ongoing fear of deportation, which can tear families apart and force individuals back to the home countries they fled in the first place. For refugees, these can be altogether dangerous situations for which they are unprepared.

Every immigrant has their own unique story and perspective, and therefore their own individual needs. Immigration and refugee social workers aim to meet each individual and family where they are, responding to their cultural framework, personal access to resources, and singular long-term goals.

The Link Between Social Work and Immigration

Helping disadvantaged individuals find access to resources such as food and shelter, healthcare, legal representation, and education has long been a central tenet of the social work profession. As social services expanded in the U.S. over the course of the 20th century, it became clear to social workers that many migrants faced the same insurmountable circumstances of the country’s most impoverished communities, alongside a host of challenges unique to those who aren’t American citizens. In light of this realization, the immigration and refugee social work field has grown to meet the needs of the U.S.’s large immigrant population.

The Role of Immigration and Refugee Social Workers

Social workers can provide numerous forms of support to immigrants in need. This can include working one-on-one with individuals and families, developing strategies to support targeted communities, and advocating for policy changes at the city, state, and federal levels to make a broad-scale difference.

Direct Immigration Social Work Services

An immigration social worker job description often includes one or more of the following services:

These one-on-one services provide those in the immigration system with the focused attention they need, helping individuals and families overcome the many hurdles they face so that they can truly improve their lives for the better.

Immigration social work is a field where you can see your efforts make a tangible difference in others’ lives.

Indeed, the many success stories of American immigrants are enough to inspire anyone to become involved in immigration social work.

Advocacy and Policy Reform

Some immigrant and refugee social workers, in particular those who have been in the field for a long time, put the insights gained from their experience in the field toward advocacy efforts intended to broadly improve the circumstances for immigrants and refugees overall. As eyewitnesses to the needs of a wide range of immigrants, social workers have an invaluable perspective on the societal roadblocks to citizenship and equal opportunity for many immigrants in the U.S. This has made them powerful champions of immigrant rights throughout U.S. history.

Beyond work at the policy level, many social work organizations also produce educational materials distributed within immigrant communities to help inform people of their rights, keep them aware of ongoing policy changes, create protection plans, and more. These can be important tools of empowerment for those who have been uncertain of their protections or unaware of developments that might affect them.

All this goes to show that one-on-one social work experiences can become a basis for a broader impact on immigrant rights and protections. This means that as an immigration and refugee social worker, you can become involved in changes not only on an individual level but a societal one.

republican national convention

How Social Workers Have Contributed to DACA

Though its status is always under threat, an important victory for immigrant minors was won in 2012, when President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. This program was designed to protect people who had been brought to the U.S. in immigrant families as children, making them eligible for a renewable two year deferral from deportation as well as eligibility for work permits. This was cause for great relief among young undocumented people, many of whom had been brought to the U.S. during infancy and lived under the traumatic fear of being punished for a decision beyond their control.

Ever since its passage – and in light of the frequent attempts by anti-immigrant lawmakers to undermine the program – social workers have been on the forefront of advocacy efforts to strengthen DACA and raise awareness of the uniquely difficult circumstances of undocumented minors, also known as “Dreamers.”

Immigration social workers have actively participated in legislative efforts to protect and expand the DACA program, advocating for a more comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the status of undocumented individuals. Social workers bring their expertise to the forefront by highlighting the psychological and social impacts of immigration policies on individuals and families, emphasizing the importance of human rights and social justice in shaping immigration laws.

Social workers have also been involved in coalition-building and other activist efforts to bring together a unified front of immigrants and dreamers who are calling for equal opportunities and protections. They have proven successful in amplifying immigrant voices and raising broad awareness of these issues to create a more equitable and just society.

Immigration Social Work Jobs

There are numerous ways to be involved in social work with immigrants and refugees, taking place in a variety of settings and engaging with diverse communities. Some are involved in direct mental health and emotional counseling; others take responsibility for case management and resource coordination; others are focused primarily on educational efforts and creating other skill-building opportunities. As a social worker, you will be able to choose the responsibilities you most gravitate toward to guide your career in the long term, ensuring that you are fulfilled as you devote your work to helping others.

There are numerous organizations and agencies employing immigration social workers, including government agencies, community centers, nonprofits, schools, medical organizations, correctional facilities, and more. As you can imagine, these often determine the specific demographics of the immigrant communities you will be focusing on in your work.

Some of the top immigration and refugee social work jobs include the following:

  • Immigrant Social Worker
  • Refugee Resettlement Case Manager
  • Legal Aid Immigration Social Worker
  • School-Based Immigration Social Worker
  • Policy Advocate
  • Nonprofit Program Coordinator for Immigration
  • Medical Social Worker in Immigrant Health Services
  • Trauma-Informed Therapist for Immigrant Populations
  • Community Organizer for Immigrant Rights
  • Immigrant Youth Mentor or Counselor

These roles highlight the diverse opportunities for social workers to contribute to the well-being and empowerment of immigrant populations across various settings and contexts.

Social Worker for Immigrants and Refugees Salary

It’s no secret that social workers devote their lives to deeply generous acts of service without necessarily being compensated as generously. However, the state of North Carolina is an excellent choice for aspiring social workers, as its relatively low cost of living and high quality of life mean that social workers in the state can make the very most of their income.

There is no official data that specifically delineates immigration and refugee social worker salary ranges exclusive from other branches of social work. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ collected data can help illuminate the range of salaries social workers can expect. Since immigration social workers are employed by a wide range of organizations, all four of the BLS’ social work categories are provided for reference below:

As you amass experience and expertise, you will be more qualified by leadership roles, leading your salary toward the higher range of your subfield of social work. This is to say that these numbers can provide a guideline for entry- and mid-level social work positions, but should not be seen as the cap on your anticipated salary over the course of your career.

Data sourced from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2022 report, accessed December 2023.


What degree level do social workers working with immigrants and refugees need?

Social workers in any field in North Carolina are expected to hold a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree from an accredited institution in order to receive their license to practice social work. This is typically two years of study (when completed full-time) and is available in both in-person and online models. One can apply to an MSW program with any bachelor’s degree, but those who hold a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree are eligible for Advanced Standing MSWs, which bypass the first year of graduate school to allow qualified students to enter the social work field more quickly.

How do social work students specialize in immigration and refugee social work?

Many students focus on the immigration and refugee social work field when they are choosing their field work internship, which is a core part of any Master of Social Work program. This will provide direct exposure to the day to day work of social workers working with immigrants, allowing students to build skills and gain a strong grasp on the needs of immigrant communities.

Some MSW programs also offer concentrations in immigration and refugee causes. If you know that this is the area where you would like to focus your social work efforts, it may be useful (but is not altogether necessary) to pick one of these degree programs.

What does an immigration and refugee social worker job description look like?

Responsibilities of immigration and refugee social workers can vary greatly depending on where you work and which communities you are engaged with. They can include facilitating access to immediate and long term resources, providing emotional and mental health counseling, offering educational resources to both children and adults, and providing legal assistance and support to the undocumented.