Revisiting Challenges And Reviving Hope While Career Counseling Undocumented Youth

By Cassie Storlie

The career development trajectory of undocumented youth presents distinct challenges to counselors and career development professionals (Storlie & Jach, 2012). Among 40 million immigrants in the U.S., approximately 11.2 million are considered undocumented (Camarota, 2012). Immigration reform and border security are not only highly debated topics, they have become politically charged across the U.S. Recent estimates conclude there are 2.5 million undocumented Latino youth, many of which do not know they are undocumented until they begin applying to colleges (NILC; National Immigration Law Center, 2015). Immigration policy is complicated and has undergone several revisions and modifications since its origin. State and federal laws differ in their policies on immigration, creating confusion for counselors and career development professionals working with undocumented youth wanting to pursue the American dream to work in the U.S. Undocumented youth face formidable adversity in the American educational system, particularly when it comes to accessing higher education. With approximately 65,000 undocumented youth graduating from high school each year, only 5-10% are estimated to enroll in college (NILC, 2015). There is limited career development literature addressing the challenges and barriers facing undocumented youth in the U.S. The purpose of this article is to highlight the salient challenges facing this population and provide important insights to career development professionals to best support these youth in their career development.

Revisiting Challenges & Reviving Hope

Below are some common challenges affecting undocumented youth in the U.S. in which career development professionals need to be aware of when working on issues of career development and college and career readiness.

1. Strong fears of deportation remain despite acts such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and undocumented youth lack available mentors to assist with the transition to the educational system in the U.S. According to Ortiz and Hinojosa (2010), undocumented students may not have the cultural capital (resources or elders available within their family /cultural group) where they know someone who has navigated the U.S. education system to provide mentorship and guidance.

  • Career professionals can revive hope in undocumented youth by encouraging parents and guardians to be involved in their academic journey and future career choices. This may be a challenge due to fear among parents in disclosing their own unauthorized status (Stromquist, 2011). Yet, counselors and career development professions can connect with “older undocumented students and organizations that can serve as role models and help build a sense of community” (NILC, 2015, p.10). Career professionals are encouraged to acknowledge the cultural context impacting this population, along with being flexible during the career counseling process (Fouad, 1995).

2. The Higher Education Act of 1965 (Title IV) prevents undocumented students from obtaining federal financial aid for college. This act includes financial resources such as student loans, grants and work-study programs (Gildersleeve, Rumann, & Mondragon, 2010).

  • Career professionals can revive hope for undocumented youth by providing information about state financial aid that is available to undocumented youth for college. Currently, undocumented youth are eligible to obtain state financial aid in California, New Mexico, Texas and Washington for college expenses (NILC, 2015). According to the NILC, 19 states allow undocumented youth to access in-state tuition (CA, CO, CT, FL, IL, KS, KY, MD, MN, NE, NJ, NM, NY, OK, OR, RI, TX, UT, and WA). Moreover, counselors and career development professionals can help identify scholarships that do not require U.S. citizenship to assist with financial aid for college.

3. In most states, obtaining internships and drivers licenses require a social security number. This can be a huge challenge for undocumented youth trying to prepare for a future career and may prevent students from accessing experiences that will prepare them in the future world of work.

  • Career professionals can revive hope by assisting undocumented students in obtaining DACA status and renewal every two years. See bit.ly/DoIQualify for further details. As counselors and career development professionals, helping these youth obtain official school transcripts/diploma and additional helpful documents, such report cards and files that demonstrate a continuous presence in the U.S. can be valuable support (NILC, 2015). Additionally, career development professionals can provide these youth information about volunteer opportunities that may supplement outside educational experiences.

4. Krumboltz and Vosvick (1996) found that clients’ beliefs about the world can hinder career development. Unfortunately, the cultural worldview of undocumented students often points to an environment of few career options in comparison to their documented peers. Undocumented youth have been found to have difficulty with identity formation, relationships with friends, goals and expectations, and obstacles in social class mobility further complicating their career development (Gonzales, 2011).

  • Career professionals can revive hope for undocumented students by using narrative approaches (Savickas, 2012), which enable clients to use their unique personal experiences to create a story with which the counselor may move the client forward. Narrative career counseling approaches embrace all elements of self and display sensitivity when working with marginalized populations.

Various studies on the academic success of undocumented youth illuminate the impact of positive relationships with school personnel (Abrego & Gonzales, 2010), including individuals that work with youth on their future career choices. De Leon (2005) identified that positive relationships with teachers and counselors boost the optimism and perseverance of undocumented youth, despite the vast obstacles they encounter. As advocates for career development for all populations, it is essential that we stay involved in supporting this population and continue to be informed on legislative affairs that impact their career success.

Abrego, L., & Gonzales, R. (2010). Blocked paths, uncertain futures: The postsecondary education and labor market prospects of undocumented Latino youth. Journal of
Education for Students Placed at Risk, 15, 144-157. doi:10.1080/10824661003635168

Camarota, S. A. (2012). Immigrants in the U.S., 2010: A profile of America’s foreign-born population. Retrieved from: http://cis.org/2012-profile-of-americas-foreign-born- population#f2

De Leon, S. (2005). Assimilation and ambiguous experience of the resilient male
Mexican immigrants that successfully navigate American higher education. Unpublished doctoral Dissertation, University of Texas, Austin.

Fouad, N. (1995). Career behavior of Hispanics: Assessment and career intervention. In Career development and vocation behavior of racial and ethnic minorities (p. 165-187). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Gildersleeve, R., Rumann, C., & Mondragon, R. (2010). Serving undocumented students: Current law and policy. New Directions for Student Services, 131, 5-18.

Gonzales, R. (2011). Learning to be illegal: Undocumented youth and shifting legal contexts in the transition to adulthood. American Sociological Review, 76, 602-619. doi:

Krumboltz, J. D., & Vosvick, M. A. (1996). Career assessment and the career beliefs
inventory. Journal of Career Assessment, 4, 345-361.

National Immigration Law Center (2015). Deferred action for childhood arrivals: A guide for educators and school support staff. Retrieved from: http://nilc.org/education.html

Ortiz, A., & Hinojosa, A. (2010). Tenuous options: The career development process for
undocumented students. New Directions for Student Services, 131, 53-65.

Savickas, M. (2012). Life design: A paradigm for career intervention in the 21st century. Journal of Counseling and Development, 90(1), 13-19. doi:10.1111/j.1556-6676.2012.00002.x

Storlie, C.A., & Jach. E.A. (2012). Social justice collaboration in schools: A model for
working with undocumented Latino students. Journal for Social Action in Counseling and Psychology, 4, 99-116.

Stromquist, N.P. (2011). The educational experience of Hispanic immigrants in the
United States: Integration through marginalization. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 15(2), 195-221. doi: 10.1080/13613324.2011.578125


Cassie StorlieDr. Cassie Storlie has held a variety of leadership positions at state and regional levels in the counseling profession. Her research includes the career development of marginalized populations, specifically Latinos/as and those with disabilities. As a Latina, she is focused on social justice and career development of undocumented Latino youth. She can be reached at cstorlie@kent.edu

Printer-Friendly Version

1 Comment

Larry Robbin   on Tuesday 09/01/2015 at 09:23 PM

Thank you for such an important article! This is great information. I would add that options for self-employment should also be explored with undocumented youth. Do they have the potential to start their own business? What resources do they need to follow this option? Thanks again for all the words of wisdom on this important topic.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.