Social Work Advocacy in Federal Immigration Courts

A Consultant’s Reflection on Successful Cases


  • Luis H. Zayas University of Texas at Austin



Advocacy, deportation, detention, immigration courts, federal courts


Advocacy for immigrant families undertaken by social workers, attorneys, and other supporters to protect against deportation, detention, and unfair government policies occurs mostly in immigration and federal courts. Social workers bring unique knowledge and skills that enhance legal teams’ representation of immigrants. This paper provides case illustrations of social work’s contribution in three types of legal actions. One illustration from immigration court demonstrates the social work consultant’s role in cancellation of removal cases when undocumented immigrants have US-citizen children. A second case is a federal class-action lawsuit to end the detention of asylum-seeking families. The third case was a federal lawsuit to dismantle bureaucratic policies and procedures that undermined the legal rights and well-being of unaccompanied children. In each of these actions, social work knowledge influenced lawsuits that can have lasting policy impact. While this paper focuses on social work advocacy in immigration cases, social work extends to many other areas of advocacy in the legal system. Social work consultants must have a clear understanding of what the attorneys are requesting to ensure that they have the requisite knowledge and skill to be optimally effective and to practice ethically within the scope of their expertise. Other implications include maintaining familiarity with contemporary social and behavioral research and providing expertise confidently in written reports and oral testimony in court. When social workers bring their expertise to legal teams in immigration cases, they promote the profession’s expertise and help families facing oppressive policies.


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