skip to main content

Associate Dean Works to Advance Well Being of Immigrants

Elaine Congress, D.S.W., says social workers will encounter immigrants no matter where they work. Photo by Michael Dames

Elaine Congress, D.S.W., says social workers will encounter immigrants no matter where they work.
Photo by Michael Dames

As the granddaughter of German immigrants, Elaine Congress, D.S.W., said she knows that America is a nation built upon the foundation of opportunity for all who reach its shores.

Congress, professor of social work and associate dean of the Graduate School of Social Work (GSS), is involved in several projects to promote the well being of immigrants. She works to improve child welfare services for immigrant communities in New York City as co-principal investigator of the Immigrant Child Welfare Fellowship Project, a grant funded through the New York Community Trust.

The project serves immigrant communities from West African countries, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and other Central and South American nations, through student field units in Harlem. One of the project’s major accomplishments, said Congress, has been to educate social work students to work with the newest wave of immigrants—West Africans from Ghana, Senegal, Somalia, Mali, Cote d’Ivorie and other African nations—and link them with services they need.

“Thirty-six percent of New York City residents are foreign born,” Congress said. “Probably another 30 percent are children born to immigrants. With immigrant families the majority population in New York City, social workers will no doubt work with immigrants no matter where they are employed.

“We feel it is particularly important for our students to learn about working with the newest immigrant groups. Learning about social work practice with the newest New Yorkers is cutting edge and often has not made it into the academic curriculum.”

Under the grant, students from Fordham and other colleges gain field experience at three sites. By going out into the communities, Congress said, students gather the kind of knowledge and skills they need for practice.

For example, Congress said that within the West African households, social workers making home visits will see several women, or “mommies,” and children of the same age in the same household, all fathered by one male. Polygamy is an accepted family structure for some African families.

Another difference between Anglo-American and immigrant families, said Congress, is that immigrant families tend to make decisions more collectively.

“We try to teach students to work with the whole families, not just the individuals, because things are often shared,” she said. “It’s different than our culture’s more individualistic approach.”

The major issue facing immigrants of all types is legal status.

“Everything revolves around it,” Congress said. “It’s important to understand the policy and legal context in which an immigrant lives. There are some immigrants who are citizens, naturalized or by birth; others have green cards, while still others are undocumented. Sometimes family members have different statuses, in that one parent may have a visa, while another is undocumented, while a child is a U.S. citizen. The issues are vast.”

To address the issues, Congress co-edited Legal and Social Work Issues with Immigrants (Springer, 2008), a book for both academics and practitioners. The chapters address a range of critical topics for immigrants, including legal status, physical and mental health issues, children’s education, women and violence, and older immigrants, and advocacy skills. Congress dedicated the book to her grandfather, who had little formal education. He went to work as a laborer on the New Haven Railroad by day and went to school at night to learn English.

“In this current economic climate, it’s particularly difficult for immigrants, who often have no safety net,” Congress said. “It’s not enough to work on an individual basis with immigrants. Every social worker should become more involved on a larger policy advocacy level.”

Curriculum development is not new to Congress. She is the creator of a family assessment tool known as the “culturagram,” a 10-part chart for social workers to assess immigrant families in a manner that helps them develop individual plans for appropriate intervention. The model, which was the subject of a social work podcast series (, delves into a family’s reasons for relocating; the impact of trauma or crisis events; its time in a community; the language spoken at home, and its values about work, education and family.

The culturagram helps social workers develop “cultural competency”—a sensitivity to, and ability to work with, different immigrant groups and their families. It enables social workers to understand their clients in a positive way and focus on the strengths instead of being judgmental and problem-focused.

“Even within the same ethnic groups,” said Congress, “families have different immigration and acculturation experiences. Knowing these specifics can help point the way to future treatment.”

She is also working, through the Community Trust grant, on “asset mapping” the curriculum of six schools of social work in New York City, to assess how and what students are learning about working with diverse populations. Besides Fordham, the participating schools include New York University, Hunter College (CUNY), Adelphi University, Stony Book University (SUNY) and Yeshiva University.

Congress is a professional to whom work is also an evening and weekend activity. As an associate dean whose focus is on continuing education and extramural programs, she orchestrates and attends several social work conferences each year. Last year she helped organized Social Work Day at the United Nations for 900 social workers from around the world, as well as the first national social work conference for students interested in global service.

She oversees Fordham’s collaborative program with Molloy College in Rockville Centre and is involved in developing the Fordham Center for Non Profit Leaders.

– Janet Sassi


Comments are closed.