Using Structural Social Work Theory to Drive Anti-Oppressive Practice With Latino Immigrants


  • Arturo Carrillo Saint Anthony Hospital
  • Cailtin L. O'Grady University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health



Structural social work theory, labor, mental health, Latino immigrants, anti-oppressive practice


Using Structural Social Work Theory to Drive Anti-Oppressive Practice With Latino Immigrants
Arturo Carrillo
Caitlin L. O'Grady
Abstract: Social work practice with marginalized populations not only requires intervention to address individuals’ immediate service needs, but also requires intervention to address the larger structural context that impacts well-being. Critical theoretical frameworks, such as Structural Social Work (SSW) theory, are essential in helping social workers to develop a comprehensive understanding of the manner in which social systems are intentionally designed to oppress marginalized populations, including immigrant and refugee communities. SSW serves to both understand how society’s structure causes social problems and to identify how these structures must be changed in order to alleviate harm. Focusing specifically on Latino immigrants, this article presents an overview of SSW theory and discusses its relevance to social work practitioners. This SSW framework will then be applied to analyze two U.S. social systems, the labor regulatory and mental health systems, that are integrally connected to Latino immigrant well-being. Finally, drawing from two case examples of research conducted in Chicago, alternative models of practice in the realms of labor and mental health are presented. Findings from these case examples illustrate how social workers can engage in anti-oppressive practice when they implement interventions that promote personal healing while simultaneously challenging oppressive elements of social systems.


Aguilar-Gaxiola, S., Loera, G., Méndez, L., Sala, M., Latino Mental Health Concilio, & Nakamoto, J. (2012). Community-defined solutions for Latino mental health care disparities: California Reducing Disparities Project, Latino Strategic Planning Workgroup population report. Sacramento, CA: UC Davis.

Ayón, C. (2014). Service needs among Latino immigrant families: Implications for social work practice. Social Work, 59(1), 13-23.

Bernhardt, A., Milkman, R., Theodore, N., Heckathron, D., Auer, M., DeFilippis, J., Gonzalez, A., Narro, V., Perelshteyn, J., Polson, D., & Spiller, M. (2009). Broken laws- Unprotected workers: Violation of employment and labor laws in America’s cities. Chicago, IL: Center for Urban Economic Development.

Bernhardt, A. & McGrath S. (2005). Trends in wage and hour enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor, 1975-2004, New York: Brennan Center for Justice.

Bobo, K. (2009). Wage theft in America: Why millions of working Americans are not getting paid- and what we can do about it. New York: The New Press.

Borjas, G. (1989). Economic theory and international migration. International Migration Review, 23(3), 457-485.

Bridges, A. J., Andrews, A. R., & Deen, T. L. (2012). Mental health needs and service utilization by Hispanic immigrants residing in mid-Southern United States. Journal of Transcultural Nursing, 23(4), 359-368.

Cabassa, L. J., Lester, R., & Zayas, L. H. (2007). “It’s like being in a labyrinth:” Hispanic immigrants’ perceptions of depression and attitudes toward treatments. Journal of Immigrant Health, 9, 1-16.

Cabassa, L. J., Zayas, L. H., & Hansen, M. C. (2006). Latino adults’ access to mental health care: A review of epidemiological studies. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 33(3), 316-330.

Cabral, A., & Handyside, R. (1970). Revolution in Guinea: Selected texts. London: Monthly Review Press.

Clarke, K. (2017, August 23). The decline of unions is part of a bad 50 years for American workers. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Collinson, S., & Diamond, J. (2016, September 1). Trump on immigration: No amnesty, no pivot. CNN. Retrieved from

De Genova, N. (2002). Migrant "illegality" and deportability in everyday life. Annu. Review Anthropol, 31, 419-447.

De Genova, N. (2004). The legal production of Mexican/migrant "Illegality". Latino Studies, 2, 160-185.

De Genova, N. (2005). Working the boundaries: Race, space, and "illegality" in Mexican Chicago. Durham: Duke University Press.

Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2012). Critical race theory: An introduction (2nd ed.). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Delgado Bernal, D. (2002). Critical race theory, Latino critical theory, and critical raced-gendered epistemologies: Recognizing students of color as holders and creators of knowledge. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1), 105-126.

Estep, K. (2016). Constructing a language problem: Status-based power devaluation and the threat of immigrant inclusion. Sociological Perspectives, 60(3), 437–458.

Flores, E., Tschann, J. M., Dimas, J. M., Bachen, E. A., Pasch, L. A., & de Groat, C. L. (2008). Perceived discrimination, perceived stress, and mental and physical health among Mexican-origin adults. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 30(4), 401-424.

Fussell, E. (2011). The deportation threat dynamic and victimization of Latino migrants: Wage theft and robbery. The Sociological Quarterly, 52(4), 593-615.

Garcia, R. J. (1995). Critical race theory and Proposition 187: The racial politics of immigration law. Chicano-Latino Law Review, 17(118), 1-28.

Garcini, L. M., Murray, K. E., Zhou, A., Klonoff, E. A., Myers, M. G., & Elder, J. P. (2016). Mental health of undocumented immigrant adults in the United States: A systematic review of methodology and findings. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, 14(1), 1-25.

Gleeson, S. (2010). Labor rights for all? The role of undocumented immigrant status for worker claims making. Law & Social Inquiry, 35 (3), 561–602.

Gomberg-Muñoz, R. (2011). Labor and legality: An ethnography of a Mexican immigrant network. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hall, M., Greenman, E., & Farkas, G. (2010). Legal status and wage disparities for Mexican immigrants. Social Forces, 89 (2), 491-513.

Ho, J., Yeh, M., McCabe, K., & Hough, R. L. (2007). Parental cultural affiliation and youth mental health service use. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36(4), 529-542.

Horton, S. (2004). Different subjects : The health care system’s participation in the differential construction of the cultural citizenship of Cuban refugees and Mexican immigrants. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 18(4), 472–489.

Horton, S. (2006). The double burden on safety net providers: Placing health disparities in the context of the privatization of health care in the U.S. Social Science & Medicine, 63, 2702-2714.

Kiang, L., Grzywacz, J. G., Marín, A. J., Arcury, T. A., & Quandt, S. A. (2010). Mental health in immigrants from nontraditional receiving sites. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 16(3), 386-394.

Kim, G., Aguado Loi, C. X., Chiriboga, D. A., Jang, Y., Parmelee, P., & Allen, R. S. (2011). Limited English proficiency as a barrier to mental health service use: A study of Latino and Asian immigrants with psychiatric disorders. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45, 104-110.

Lagomasino, I. T., Dwight-Johnson, M., Miranda, J., Zhang, L., Liao, D., Duan, N., & Wells, K. B. (2005). Disparities in depression treatment for Latinos and site of care. Psychiatric Services, 56, 1517-1523.

Lee, S., & Matejkowski, J. (2012). Mental health service utilization among noncitizens in the United States: Findings from the National Latino and Asian American study. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 39, 406-418.

Lesniewski, J., & Drucker, J. (2017). Proceedings from Urban Affairs Association 2017. Minneapolis, MN.

Levin, R., & Ginsburg, R. (2000). Sweatshops in Chicago: a survey of working conditions in low-income immigrant communities. Chicago, IL: Center for Impact Research.

Massey, D. S., Durand, J., & Malone N. J. (2002). Beyond smoke & mirrors: Mexican immigration in an era of economic integration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Mehta, C., Theodore, N., Mora, I., & Wade, J. (2002). Chicago's undocumented immigrants: An analysis of wages, working conditions, and economic contributions. University of Illinois at Chicago: Center for Urban Economic Development.

Menjívar, C. (2016). Immigrant criminalization in law and the media: Effects on Latino immigrant workers’ identities in Arizona. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(5-6), 597-616.

Meyer J. & Greenleaf, R. (2011). Enforcement of state wage and hour laws: A survey of state regulators. New York: Columbia Law School- National State Attorneys General Program.

Moreau, M. J. (1979). A structural approach to social work practice. Canadian Journal of Social Work Education, 5 (1), 78-94.

Mullaly, B. (2007). The new structural social work. (3rd ed.). Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press.

Orrenius, P.M., & Zavodny, M. (2009). Do immigrant work in riskier jobs? Demography, 46 (3), 535-551.

Passel, J.S., & Cohn, D. (2009). A portrait of unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Pew Research Center: Pew Hispanic Center.

Raymond-Flesch, M., Siemons, R., Pourat, N., Jacobs, K., & Brindis, C. D. (2014). “There is no help out there, and if there is, it’s really hard to find”: A qualitative study of the health concerns and health care access of Latino “DREAMers”. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55, 323-328.

Rivera-Batiz, F.L. (1999) Undocumented workers in the labor market: An analysis of the earnings of legal and illegal Mexican immigrants in the United States. Journal of Population Economics, 12(1), 91-116.

Rylko-Bauer, B., & Farmer, P. (2002). Managed care or managed inequality? A call for critiques of market-based medicine. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 16(4), 476–502.

Salas, L. M., Ayón, C., & Gurrola, M. (2013). Estamos traumados: The effect of anti-immigrant sentiment and policies on the mental health of Mexican immigrant families. Journal of Community Psychology, 41(8), 1005-1020.

Sanchez, H. E., Delgado, A. L., & Saavedra, R. G. (2011) Latino workers in the United States 2011. Labor Council for Latin American Advancement.

Santiago-Rivera, A. L., Kanter, J. W., Busch, A. M., Rusch, L. C., Reyes, W…Runge, M. (2011). Latino immigrants with depression: An initial examination of treatment issues at a community clinic. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 13, 772-779.

Sassen-Koob, S. (1981). Towards a conceptualization of immigrant labor. Social Problems, 29 (1), 65-85.

Solórzano, D. G., & Yosso, T. J. (2002). Critical race methodology: Counter-storytelling as an analytical framework for education research. Qualitative Inquiry, 8(1), 23-44.

Stewart, C. O., Pitts, M. J., & Osborne, H. (2011). Mediated intergroup conflict: The discursive construction of “illegal immigrants” in a regional U.S. newspaper. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 30(1), 8–27.

U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). Wage and Hour Division Mission Statement. Retrieved from

U.S. Department of Labor. (2017). Union members – 2016 (USDL Publication No. 17-0107). Retrieved from

Valentino, N. A., Brader, T., & Jardina, A. E. (2013). Immigration opposition among U.S. whites: General ethnocentrism or media priming of attitudes about Latinos? Political Psychology, 34(2), 149–166.

Weil, David. (2008). A strategic approach to labour inspection. International Labour Review, 147 (4), 349-75.

Young, K., & Schwartz, M. (2014). Healthy, wealthy, and wise: How corporate power shaped The Affordable Care Act. New Labor Forum, 23(2), 30-40.