CSU social work researchers address rights, policies, well-being among immigrants in the U.S.

stock photo illustration for immigration themed story showing a closeup photo of a visa document

Combined with existing barriers to citizenship, attitudes towards immigrants can negatively impact their overall well-being, says Assistant Professor Elizabeth Kiehne of Colorado State University’s School of Social Work.

“Ambivalent attitudes toward immigrants in the U.S. have long guided immigration policy, resulting in a large and socially undervalued immigrant population that is partially integrated but not legally recognized,” said Kiehne, noting how the nation’s increase in federal immigration enforcement has led to violations of internationally recognized human rights and “core social work values.”

Kiehne is leading two community-based participatory action research studies that aim to improve macro-oriented social work practice among immigrant populations in the U.S. CSU School of Social Work doctoral student Sarah Grace Hafen is a graduate research assistant on both projects.

“These studies represent unique opportunities to enhance policy practice through community-driven research,” said Kiehne.

Advocating for local immigrant populations facing deportation

The first study aims to understand the social and political barriers to well-being among immigrants in Colorado’s Larimer and Boulder counties.

“These individuals and their families are an essential part of our local communities’ social fabric and economic landscape,” said Kiehne. “Understanding the ways in which social and political forces impact their well-being is critical.”

Researchers will assess the impact of limited access to legal status on various social indicators of individual well-being, including housing stability, food security, and physical and psychological health.

The study also assesses social indicators of well-being at the community level, exploring how social integration, social cohesion, and collective efficacy serve as building blocks for strong, thriving communities.

Kiehne said the data collected will help “inform local advocacy in support of a city-sponsored immigrant legal services fund that would increase local immigrants’ access to legal representation.”

Immigration and deportation hearings are the only legal proceedings in the U.S. in which individuals – even children and asylum-seekers – can be detained without the right to a government-funded lawyer.

Kiehne noted that many immigrants facing deportation hold consistent employment, pay local and federal taxes, and raise U.S.-citizen children. Many also are homeowners.

Head shot of Elizabeth Kiehne, Assistant Professor Elizabeth Kiehne, Assistant Professor, CSU School of Social Work.
Elizabeth Kiehne

“This study helps us get a pulse on the economic, social, physical, and psychological well-being of immigrants for more targeted and effective local, state, and federal collective advocacy,” said Kiehne. “Particularly, those who are sometimes referred to as ‘unauthorized permanent residents’ – immigrants who have lived in and contributed to their communities in the U.S. for at least a decade – and often much longer – despite lacking formal immigration status.”

The study is funded by Fort Collins nonprofit Alianza NORCO, which also serves as its lead partner given the organization’s existing advocacy work with immigrant populations in Northern Colorado.

A majority of Fort Collins city council members have already expressed support for the immigration legal services fund, and the city will be voting on a local ordinance soon.

Shedding light on systems of detention and deportation

The second study, a collaboration with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition called the Defense of Immigrant Rights Project, intends to elevate immigrants’ lived experiences and assess the impacts of ICE, immigration detention centers and deportation on immigrants and their families.

“This applied research project will uplift the voices of Coloradans who have been impacted by the current era of mass detention and deportation, empowering them with a platform to join others with similar experiences and share their perspectives,” Kiehne said.

The researchers will extract themes and trends from data on the operations of ICE and for-profit detention centers to assess the impact on immigrants, who are often mixed-status.

“What is particularly novel about this project is its spotlighting of the intersections between local enforcement, federal immigration enforcement, and human rights, as well as the incredible strength of immigrant families when the daily threat of detention or deportation becomes a reality,” said Kiehne.

A community advisory board comprised of immigrant rights activists and leaders from across the state will guide the study and assist researchers in disseminating key findings among policymakers and the general public. Kiehne said the board “will use community voices to support advocacy for policies that better protect the rights and welfare of immigrant families from local law enforcement agencies to the federal level.

The Family Leadership Training Institute – a nonpartisan, multi-sector, community-driven collaborative focused on cultivating healthier, more inclusive communities and systems – was instrumental in the community advisory board’s formation.

The second study received funding from a mini-grant awarded by CSU’s Office of Engagement and Extension and the School of Social Work.

Using data to support community efforts for well-being among immigrants

Kiehne sees research as an effective tool for advocating for immigrants’ rights and improving policies to better support their well-being. She strives to lead collaborative, community-engaged research that exposes the roots of hardship and barriers to well-being among immigrants.

“We have an opportunity to leverage data and science to support the many organizing efforts already happening in the community,” she said. “Research will help build our understanding of immigrants’ lived experiences and ultimately promote healthier, more inclusive communities.”

About the School of Social Work

Since the first baccalaureate social work major was first offered in 1968, Colorado State University’s School of Social Work has made a continuous effort to develop and maintain a program that is responsive to the standards of the social work profession, to the needs of human services agencies and clients in the state, and to the land-grant mission and goals of CSU. The school’s mission is to provide exemplary education, applied research, and transformative outreach to advance social, environmental, and economic justice; promote equity and equality; alleviate oppression; and enhance human health and well-being across local and global community systems.

The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

Cyrus Martin, CSU News and Media Relations, contributed to this story.