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date: 23 October 2020

Asylum Seekers, Refugees, and Immigrants in the United States

Abstract and Keywords

This article presents introductory information on asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants in the United States, including distinctions among them, major regions of origin, demographic, and socioeconomic characteristics, challenges in social, economic, and cultural adaptation, and best practices for social work with these populations.

Keywords: asylum seekers, cultural adaptation, immigrants, refugees, United States


The percentage of foreign-born people in the United States is increasing, having grown from 11% in 2000 to 13.5% in 2016. At present, over 43 million members of the U.S. population are foreign born (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016). Thus, all social workers are likely to encounter asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants in their practice, and it is essential that they be prepared to work effectively with these populations.


There are many differing categories of international migrants. Table 1 shows some common conceptual categories. The table categorizes the foreign born as either voluntary or forced migrants, and as either permanent or temporary. These categories are intended to provide a guiding framework; in reality, such distinctions are not always clear cut. For example, many international migrants experience a mixture of both voluntary and forced reasons for migration.

Table 1. Conceptual Categories of International Migrants

Length of Residence

Impetus for migration





Victims of atrocities

International adoptees



International students

Asylum seekers


Victims of disasters

Professionals on assignment

Natural disasters

Guest workers

Human-made disasters

Seasonal workers

Persons in any of these categories may have legal or illegal status. This is a guiding framework only. Categorical distinctions are not always clear cut in reality. Persons may move from one cell to another over time.

Voluntary, permanent international migrants include immigrants and international adoptees. Immigrants are persons who leave their countries of their own will, usually in search of better economic opportunities. International adoptees whose birth parents and home governments have consented to their adoption abroad would also be considered voluntary permanent migrants (as minors, they themselves are not considered capable of giving consent; thus, the consent of their parents or guardians makes this a voluntary situation).

Forced migrants are those who have left their homelands because they had no other choice. In the permanent category, these include victims of atrocities, such as refugees who are victims of war and other human rights violations and cannot return to their countries because of fear of persecution.

Temporary voluntary migrants include students, tourists, and so forth, who intend to stay in the country a limited period of time and then return to their homelands. Temporary forced migrants include asylum seekers; these are persons making a claim for refugee status, for whom a decision is pending. This status is temporary because, ultimately, they are either granted refugee status or they are ordered to return to their homeland. Victims of natural and human-made disasters are also usually temporary migrants, as they typically return to their homelands after the disaster has abated.

Persons in any of these conceptual categories may have legal or illegal status. Legal migrants are those who are authorized to live in the country; illegal migrants are those who entered the country either without authorization or with fraudulent passports, or overstayed their visas. People may also move from one cell to another. For example, students or tourists who stay in the country after their visas have expired become illegal, permanent immigrants.

Regions of Origin

Among the foreign born in 2016, 52.8% were born in Latin America or the Caribbean, 30.8% in Asia, 10.9% in Europe, and the remaining 5.5% in other regions of the world (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016).

Demographic and Socioeconomic Characteristics

Table 2 provides a composite profile of the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of the foreign born. It should be noted, however, that the foreign born are a very heterogeneous population, and there is great variability in these characteristics.

Table 2. Demographic and Socioeconomic Characteristics of the Foreign Born

Geographic distribution

Over the five-year period of 2012–2016, the foreign-born population was broadly dispersed across all states of the United States. The top 10 states, in descending order of the percentage of their residents who were foreign born, were California (27.0%), New York (22.6%), New Jersey (21.8%), Florida (19.9%), Nevada (19.3%), Hawaii (17.9%), Texas (16.7%), Massachusetts (15.7%), Maryland (14.7%), and Connecticut (14.0%).


In 2016, 79.0% of the foreign born were 18–64 years old, whereas 59.3% of natives were in this age group. The percentage of the foreign born who were aged 65 years and over did not differ from that of the native population (15.2% each). By contrast, 5.8% of the foreign born, but 25.5% of the native population, were less than 18 years old. The small proportion of foreign born in the youngest age group occurred because most of the children of foreign-born parents were born in the United States and thus are natives.

Year of entry

Among the foreign born in 2016, over one-half (54.7%) entered the United States before 2000; 26.7% arrived in the 2000s; and 18.6% arrived after 2010.

Family household size and composition

In 2016, the average household size with a foreign-born householder was 3.4 people, compared to 2.5 among households with a native householder. Among the population 15 years and older, the foreign born were more likely than natives to be currently married (59.1% compared with 45.3%).

Educational attainment

The foreign born aged 25 years and over were less likely to have graduated from high school than were natives the same age (71.2% and 90.9%, respectively). The percentage of the foreign born with a bachelor’s degree or more education (30.0%) was similar to that of the native population (31.6%).

Economic characteristics

  • Labor force participation

    In 2016, 66.2% of the foreign born were in the labor force, compared with 62.6% of natives.

  • Occupation

    In 2010, the foreign born were more likely than the native born to work in jobs in service occupations (24.1% vs. 16.8%), and natural resources, maintenance and construction occupations (22.3% vs. 13.8%). The foreign born were less likely to work in management, business, science, and arts occupations (31.6% vs. 38.8%) or in sales and office occupations (16.6% vs. 24.7%).

  • Income

    In 2016, the median annual income of foreign-born households was $53,755, compared with $58,402 for native households.

  • Poverty

    In 2016, 16.5% of the foreign born were living below the poverty level, compared with 13.7% of natives.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2016.

Challenges in Social, Economic, and Cultural Adaptation

International migrants are likely to encounter challenges in numerous areas of adaptation, including health; mental health; family dynamics; language and education, and economic well-being; and interethnic relations (Potocky & Naseh, in press).


International migrants often face inadequate health care access due to structural barriers, financial barriers, and personal and cultural barriers. In general, the health status of ethnic minorities, including many immigrants and refugees, tends to be worse than that of the overall U.S. population (National Institutes of Health, 2010). These disparities are due to a complex combination of socioeconomic, physiological, psychological, societal, and cultural factors. Relevant cultural factors include health beliefs and health practices that encompass cultural concepts of health and illness, folk illness, traditional therapeutic practices, and the integration of traditional and conventional healing systems. Psychosocial issues are also related to the health and health care of immigrants and refugees, including treatment adherence, somatization, and family involvement (Potocky & Naseh, in press).

Mental Health

International migrants are at risk of developing mental health problems due to stressors experienced during the migration process. These stressors may include loss of family members, friends, home, and the familiar environment; traumatic experiences such as war, famine, violence, rape, enslavement, imprisonment, and torture; a hasty and dangerous departure; dangerous transit experiences; loss of status; language problems; employment problems; legal problems; social isolation; family conflict; role changes; discrimination, racism, and xenophobia; and acculturative stress.

Some of these experiences are common to almost all international migrants, whereas others, such as traumatic experiences, are experienced only by some, particularly by forced migrants. Additionally, the mental health of international migrants is influenced by cultural factors. These include conceptualizations of mental health, diagnosis and symptom expression, communication styles, coping styles, and service utilization. The most commonly observed mental health problems of international migrants include grief, alienation and loneliness, decreased self-esteem, depression, anxiety, somatization, paranoia, guilt, posttraumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse (Potocky & Naseh, in press).

Family Dynamics

The stressors of the migration process typically lead to changes in family roles and dynamics. In some cases, these stressors may overcome a family’s ability to cope, resulting in marital and intergenerational conflicts, which may include domestic violence, child abuse, and abuse of older adults. In addition to family conflicts, family members, particularly adolescents and older adults, experience unique life cycle issues that are affected by migration. These issues center on identity, meaning, and family expectations (Potocky & Naseh, in press).

Language, and Education

Most international migrants are highly motivated to learn English, as evidenced by high demand for English-as-a-Second Language classes (Center for Adult English Language Acquisition, 2012). For most migrants, English ability improves with length of residence. However, the rate of language acquisition depends on many factors, including age, education, time available for language learning, level of literacy in the native language, opportunities to interact with native English speakers, and the value that the individual places on being bilingual. Across generations, the level of English language acquisition appears to be increasing, and immigrant and refugee children acquire English much faster than their parents. It is generally accepted that bilingualism is the desired outcome for both children and adults. However, it is important to recognize that being bilingual does not necessarily mean equal proficiency in both languages. This has implications for the level of written and oral translation in reaching those who speak another language.

The educational attainment of adult international migrants is clustered at the low and high ends of the educational spectrum. While many children in immigrant and refugee families perform well in school, many are also disadvantaged by low family socioeconomic status, limited English proficiency, late entry into the U.S. school system, and assimilation into disadvantaged minority groups.

Economic Well-Being

The economic well-being of immigrants and refugees varies widely and is influenced by numerous factors, including financial capital, physical capital, human capital, social capital, household composition, and community contexts (Potocky & Naseh, in press). All these sources of capital may be lost or affected by displacement and thereby place foreign-born persons in more vulnerable positions compared to natives.

Interethnic Relations

Anti-immigrant sentiments and policies rise and fall in cycles that are linked to changing economic and political conditions and security concerns. Anti-immigrant sentiments are also linked to prejudice, racism, and discrimination. In the early 21st century, anti-immigrant sentiment is high. These attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors have multiple causes, including economic, psychological, social, and power-conflict factors. Relations between the foreign-born and the native-born populations tend to be characterized by separation, conflict, and competition in some communities (Potocky & Naseh, in press).

Best Practices

Social work best practices for working with international migrants have the following fundamental features: they are (a) rights based, (b) strengths based, (c) evidence based, (d) holistic, and (e) multilevel.

Rights Base

International migrants, particularly those who are undocumented, are often viewed by natives as subhuman and not deserving of the same rights as humans. It is essential that social workers combat this attitude and its resultant policies and practices. Therefore, a human rights base is essential to practice with this population (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 2013). Social workers should view international migrants as rights-holders, entitled to inclusion, protection, and dignity.

Strengths Base

Best practices for social work with international migrants use a strengths perspective (Saleebey, 2008) that “emphasizes the discovery of strengths in the person and the culture, the motivation toward perseverance and change based on inner strength and endurance, and the environment as full of resources at the family, group, and community levels” (Yuen & Lum, 2010, p. 199). The social worker should find out what coping strategies and problem resolution strategies the client has successfully used in the past. These strengths should then be built upon for addressing the current problem.

Evidence Base

Evidence-based practitioners are defined as those who (a) use interventions that have evidence of effectiveness based on published evaluations, whenever available, and (b) systematically evaluate their effectiveness through practice or program evaluation methods, or both. Thus, evidence-based social workers must know what interventions have been demonstrated to be effective in resolving particular problems among particular clients. However, many interventions have not been specifically evaluated for international migrant clients. Thus, workers must be able to determine what interventions, or modifications of interventions, appear most promising for these clients based on demonstrated effectiveness for other populations. In many cases, social workers will adapt existing interventions or programs to make them culturally compatible for international migrants. Therefore, social workers need to evaluate their practice with these populations to determine the effectiveness of these adaptations, and to disseminate their findings in order to add to the profession’s knowledge base about what works for these clients.

Holistic Practice

As described earlier, international migrants usually are confronted with a multitude of challenges. Thus, effective social workers must identify, assess, and intervene with the totality of the problems that clients are facing. For this reason, case management is an essential underpinning of best practices with these populations.

Multilevel Practice

Problems that are the target of social work practice may be located at three possible levels: micro (individual, family, and small group), meso (local communities and organizations), and macro (complex organizations or systems). For international migrants, problems often lie in the meso or macro levels in the form of societal discrimination as manifested in factors such as lack of access to health care or employment. In such cases, meso- and macro-level interventions are required, since working only with the client is highly unlikely to resolve the problem. To aim for change in the client when the problem really lies in the society would further the client’s oppression; it would make the helping relationship a means of oppression rather than a means of help.

Summary of Best Practices

Table 3 summarizes the best practices that meet the aforementioned criteria and that address each of the areas of challenge described earlier (Potocky & Naseh, in press).

Table 3. Best Practice Interventions for Immigrant and Refugee Populations

Macro practices

  • Community needs assessment

  • Policy and program advocacy and planning

  • Community consultation, education, and development

  • Supporting culturally and linguistically appropriate integrated services

Meso practices

  • Interdisciplinary and interagency collaboration

  • Organizational development

  • Promoting integration

  • Monitoring and Evaluation

  • Networking

Micro practices

  • Health

    • Case identification

    • Assessment of health beliefs and treatment expectations

    • Case management

    • Health education and counseling

    • Culturally and linguistically appropriate psychosocial treatment

  • Mental health

    • Case management

    • Supportive counseling

    • Information and skills training

    • Crisis intervention

    • Culturally and linguistically appropriate and evidence-based therapies

  • Family dynamics

    • Couple and family strategic therapy

    • Ethnic identity and acculturation interventions

    • Reminiscence therapy

  • Language and education

    • Referral, case advocacy, and follow-up

    • Supportive counseling

    • Psychosocial interventions

  • Economic well-being

    • Job search assistance, coaching, and mentoring

    • Self-employment assistance

    • Vocational education and career counseling

    • Professional recertification

    • Child care

  • Interethnic relations

    • Structured interethnic contact

    • Conflict resolution


Social work practice with immigrants and refugees requires specialized knowledge of the unique issues of these populations. This article has provided introductory information as a foundation for compassionate and effective service delivery.

Further Reading

Chang-Muy, F., & Congress, E. P. (Eds.). (2016). Social work with immigrants and refugees: Legal issues, clinical skills, and advocacy (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Springer.Find this resource:

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E., Loescher, G., Long, K., & Sigona, N. (Eds.). (2014). The Oxford handbook of refugee and forced migration studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Potocky, M. & Naseh, M. (in press). Best practices for social work with refugees and immigrants (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Segal, U. A., & Elliott, D. (Eds.). (2012). Refugees worldwide. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.Find this resource:

Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees.

Migration Policy Institute.

Standards and Indicators for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice. National Association of Social Workers.


Center for Adult English Language Acquisition. (2012). ESL resources.

National Institutes of Health. (2010). Fact sheet: Health disparities.Find this resource:

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2013). Migration and human rights: Improving human rights-based governance of international migration.Find this resource:

Potocky, M., & Naseh, M. (in press). Best practices for social work with refugees and immigrants. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

Saleebey, D. (2008). The strengths perspective in social work practice (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.Find this resource:

U.S. Census Bureau. (2016). 2016 American Community Survey.

Yen, F. K. O., & Lum, D. (2010). Skill development. In D. Lum (Ed.), Culturally competent practice: A framework for understanding diverse groups and justice issues (4th ed., pp. 187–220). Belmont, CA: Thomson.Find this resource: