The Challenges of Career Counseling with Undocumented Immigrant Youth

By Cassie Storlie

Approximately 65,000 undocumented immigrant youth graduate from American high schools each year (Passel, 2006). These students graduate high school with little option on what to do with the rest of their lives, due to multiple barriers related to lack of citizenship. There are few attainable career choices for undocumented immigrant youth due to realistic fears of deportation, restrictions in obtaining lawful employment, and different cultural values. Options for legal work in this country are prohibited, and college aspirations are virtually unattainable due to limited financial resources (Ortiz & Hinojosa, 2010). As such, undocumented immigrant youth in the United States experience an unconventional career development trajectory. The purpose of this article is to address the complexities of working with undocumented immigrant youth and suggest specific multicultural career models for school counselors when working with this population.


Undocumented Immigrant Youth and the American Education System

U.S. Supreme Court case, Plyler versus Doe, resulted in a federal ruling that gave undocumented immigrant youth the right to a K-12 education if residing in the U.S. (Olivas, 2005). However, this ruling did not address access to higher education. Funding for college expenses is minimal due to students’ lack of lawful employment. Students relying on family to help with the cost of tuition find scare resources to finance college. In-state and out-of-state tuition requirements are further hurdles for those that persevere amidst these challenges. Travel to and from college classes can be complicated. Undocumented immigrant youth increase their chances of encountering immigration officials when using public transportation, leading to an increased risk of deportation. For the majority of undocumented immigrant youth, college is an impossible and often, unattainable dream.


The Cultural Challenges of Undocumented Immigrant Youth

Emotional and psychological hardships are not uncommon for these students. The migration transition, loss of friendships and inability to see extended family can be traumatic. Further emotional issues include adjustment to the individualistic American culture, learning the English language, living in crowded environments and changing role expectations within the family (Perez, Espinoza, Ramos, Coronado, & Cortes, 2009). Negative stereotypes, powerlessness over one’s future and persistent discrimination are troubling obstacles. Undocumented immigrant youth have been identified as having a “triple minority status”; encompassing ethnicity, lack of American citizenship and low socioeconomic status (Perez et al., 2009). These conditions can lead to emotionally destructive labels, stigma and micro-aggressions that occur in and out of the classroom. Furthermore, recent deportation orders have been given for high schools and colleges among students in California, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico and Washington (Abrego & Gonzales, 2010).

Many undocumented immigrant youth are socialized in American society and have lived in the U.S. for the majority of their life. Cultural challenges arise when there is a competition between family obligations and requirements of the school. Collectivistic values frequently supersede the individualistic values of the American educational system. These students lack mentors and do not have the “cultural capital” in which they know someone who has navigated through American educational pathways (Oldfield, 2007). School counselors have the unique opportunity to guide the academic transition and career development for undocumented immigrant youth through the use of multicultural career counseling models.


Suggested Career Counseling Models for Undocumented Immigrant Youth

  • The Systems Theory Framework (STF); Arthur & McMahon, 2005

STF is a model that incorporates the individual’s social, environmental and societal contexts. It encourages counselors to directly assess cultural representation in career development models. Although the theory centers on the individual, accommodations can be made for those embedded in collectivistic cultures. STF addresses interactions between systems and subsystems, which influence career development. School counselors who embrace STF attend to career guidance in students through integrative and holistic approaches. STF can be applied in individual or group sessions by incorporating activities that address career choice in relation to their identified social, environmental and societal systems. Furthermore, cultural emphasis communicates understanding and empathy which potentially strengthens the counseling relationship.

  • Ecological Models; Cook, Heppner & O’Brien, 2005

Ecological perspectives in career development have shown enduring levels of multicultural sensitivity in terms of race and gender. Sensitivity to unique challenges and home environments communicates understanding of the undocumented immigrant youth’s worldview. Relationships to micro and macro-systems are fluid and paramount when one begins choosing careers options. Career development and vocational choice are directed related to immediate and socio-cultural environments. Ecological models provide effective ways to communicate environmental impact to student affairs personnel. Likewise, this model may empower school counselors to become social change advocates, leading to potential improvement of future working environments for this population.

  • Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT); Lent, Brown & Hackett, 1994, 2000

SCCT centers on how individuals form interests, make career choices and succeed in academic and vocational quests. SCCT assesses specific barriers that individuals encounter, addressing environmental issues and analyzing the relationship between barriers and other variables. It concentrates on positive environmental supports that may enhance career problem solving and coping efficacy. This comprehensive theory includes multicultural context and environmental supports, which assists school counselors in working with the complexities of undocumented immigrant youth.



With the failure of The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) in December 2010, undocumented immigrant youth continue to struggle with career options and will for the unforeseen future. The cultural worldview of undocumented immigrant youth often points to an environment of few career options. As counselors and social advocates, we are charged with the responsibility to cultivate the career development of all students. Despite multiple adversities, using these multicultural career counseling models may be key that unlocks the door to healthy career development in undocumented immigrant youth.



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Passel, J. (2006). The size and characteristics of the unauthorized migration population in the U.S.: Estimates based on the March 2005 current population survey. Washington, D.C.:Pew Hispanic Center.

Perez, W., Espinoza, R., Ramos, K., Coronado, H., & Cortes, R. (2007). Academic resilience among undocumented Latino students. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 31 (2), 149-181. DOI: 10.1177/0739986309333020.


Cassandra StorlieCassie Storlie is currently a doctoral student in Counselor Education and Supervision at The University of Iowa. Originally trained as a psychiatric Registered Nurse, she earned her Master’s of Science in Education in Counseling from Western Illinois University. She has background in crisis counseling, behavioral health administration, and employee assistance program counseling. Cassie has been awarded the Dean’s Graduate Fellowship, the NCACES Student Research Award, and led the first place team for the 2011 ACA Doctoral Division Ethics Competition. Throughout her studies, she has developed a passion for researching best practices in career and social justice for undocumented immigrant youth. She is currently the President for Chi Sigma Iota, Rho Upisolon Chapter at The University of Iowa. Ms. Storlie can be reached at cassandra-storlie@uiowa.edu.


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