According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2012 Austin ranked among the top 20 Hispanic metropolitan areas. About thirty percent of Austin Hispanic residents are foreign-born. Leonor Vargas (MSSW ’89) works with many immigrant families in her position as director of the Family Resource Center-The Austin Project, at Consuelo Mendez Middle School. We talked with her about her advocacy for these families.
What are the main issues facing the Hispanic immigrant families you work with?
Many of the issues facing the adults are similar to those we saw in the early years with migrant workers. For example, if they work in construction, they often don’t have water to drink at job sites or restrooms to use. They work long hours for low wages and no benefits, and are frequently subjected to unsafe working conditions. In the families, sometimes one of the parents does not have proper documentation, so there is widespread fear among children of their parents being deported. This is a big stressor for a child. I have especially seen this during the past year, in part owing to increased awareness about Secure Communities and the way it is enforced by Travis County Sheriff’s Office. More generally, healthcare coverage is a significant concern for families. The average income is between 20 and 30k per year, and that’s not a living wage for a family here in Austin.
In your current role, what are you able to do about these issues?
As a social worker, I feel a strong ethical responsibility to bring these issues to light and speak at every opportunity I have to the City of Austin Health Department, Health and Human Services, and our non-profit partners. By being an advocate and creating a profile of the families and their struggles, I try to help the community realize that these are our neighbors facing these issues. We also have to challenge the idea that, just because some of them are here without the proper documentation, they aren’t human beings. It may be a fact that they’re undocumented, but the reality is that they are members of our families, of our communities, and are contributing to our society.
How did the School of Social Work prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
I had a great professor, David Austin, who asked us to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. When I read that, it was powerful because it claimed the right to leave one’s country as a basic human right. I come from families that moved to Texas from Mexico because of human rights violations and I can see that this is still happening today. Dr. Austin would always say, “We wrote those laws for a reason, not just to forget about them.” As social workers, I believe we’re called to remind people about this and to work for the development and implementation of fair and humane domestic immigration laws.