Career Counseling for Immigrants

For counselors working with immigrants, it is essential to first understand how and why people immigrate to the United States, and what challenges they face once they are here. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that as of March 2005 there were 32.5 million immigrants in the United States, accounting for about 12% of the population. Furthermore, 7.9 million immigrants arrived here between 2000 and 2005, making this the highest 5-year period for immigration in U.S. history. The majority of current immigration to the United States is from Mexico, though growing numbers of immigrants come from other Latin American countries, as well as from Asia, Canada, and Eastern Europe. The primary reason for immigration to the United States is a perceived opportunity for economic growth beyond what is available in the individual’s country of origin. Others come to the United States as refugees as a result of political turmoil or natural disasters in their home countries. In some cases, only one family member will move initially, planning to send money home and to relocate the rest of the family once she or he becomes established.

Processes for immigration vary. Some individuals obtain temporary visas for educational or work purposes and then apply for permanent resident status. For individuals working in high technology fields, employers may assist in this process. Permanent residents hold what are called green cards. Others may apply immediately for permanent resident status based on family members in the United States or for humanitarian reasons (refugees, individuals in need of medical treatment, or those seeking political asylum). Since 9/11, this process has become much more difficult, however. Because of substantial backlogs in the processing of immigration paperwork, temporary visas may expire before an application for permanent residency is approved. Then, an individual or family is faced with the difficult choice of giving up an established life or remaining in the country illegally. For families with children who were born here, and thus are U.S. citizens, this decision can be wrenching.

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In many cases, the process of legal immigration appears so overwhelming that desperate individuals or families, particularly from very poor countries, attempt to immigrate to the United States without any legal status. This is a dangerous process involving covert border crossings, falsified documents, and exploitation by individuals who assist in the process but may threaten to expose an immigrant’s illegal status if exorbitant demands for payment or services are not met. In the case of female immigrants, these demands may include forced sex. Of those immigrants who arrived between 2000 and 2005, about half either came here illegally or lost their legal status when their visas expired.

Challenges for Career Counselors

Counselors may encounter immigrants in a variety of settings, including schools, community agencies, and mental health clinics. Immigrant children—including children of illegal or undocumented immigrants— may receive career counseling in a more traditional secondary-school setting. Adults may seek career counselors as part of a job search or as a result of personal counseling that raises career concerns. Counselors who are doing outreach in poorer communities may also work with undocumented immigrants and may be called on to help with the process of obtaining legal status.

As with all career counseling, part of the process is providing information. With immigrants, this is likely to include basic employment concepts in the United States, including taxes and Social Security, pay periods, and benefits. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site ( provides helpful information to guide new immigrants and their counselors through this process. However, there are significant barriers to employment of immigrants. While federal law prohibits discrimination because of immigration status, discrimination nonetheless remains a significant issue. Limited English skills or a strong accent can pose difficulties for obtaining employment, particularly in jobs requiring a great deal of interaction with English-speaking customers, suppliers, or coworkers. Also, interpersonal styles that may be appropriate in the immigrant’s country of origin may be considered inappropriate here—and these may be misconstrued as arrogant or aggressive. In such cases, a counselor may be able to assist by role-playing with the client in a mock interview. Even if the above issues are addressed, however, professional credentials from foreign countries are often not recognized in this country. Thus, immigrants who held professional positions in their countries of origin may face significant underemployment, which contributes to increased financial stress as well as to feelings of loss.

In planning a career intervention, approaches to general multicultural counseling are equally important in career counseling. For example, counselors should consider the client’s worldview and value orientation, including the degree to which the client’s home culture is individualistic or collectivistic. It may be important for those from collectivistic cultures (Asian or Latino/a, for example) to consider the needs and desires of the family rather than solely one’s own personal needs and interests in determining a career goal.

Gender issues may be significant in immigrant couples, particularly when the culture in the country of origin was more male dominant. Because of increased opportunities for women in the United States and because women may be more willing to take lower-status positions, the female partner is likely to find employment first. Thus, traditional gender roles may become reversed as the wife provides the primary financial support for the family. If the couple has children, they may also acculturate faster than will their father, increasing strain in the family because of behavior that their father may perceive as disrespectful of his authority. In this case, career counseling for a male immigrant may require also addressing his loss of status, power, and ability to provide for his family—all of which contribute to diminished self-efficacy, family conflict, and potential depression.

The stress of adjusting to a new culture can compound the stresses of unemployment or underemployment, particularly when this culture must be negotiated in an unfamiliar language. Loss of social support networks and extended family contact may contribute to a sense of isolation. Furthermore, traumatic experiences prior to or during immigration can affect clients’ overall functioning—which clearly can affect their occupational functioning.

For career counselors working in more traditional high school or college settings, it is likely that counseling will be more related to career choice than immediate employment. Recent research has established the cross-cultural validity of Holland’s RIASEC (Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional) model of career personality and work environment, and the 1994 and 2004 revisions of the Strong Interest Inventory have also increased its cross-cultural validity. Because children often become quickly acculturated, this work may be closer to traditional career counseling. However, it is important consider the role the family and their culture may play in these students’ educational and career choices.

Ethical Issues

In doing any type of counseling, the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics mandates that counselors consider the cultural backgrounds of their clients in their assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Furthermore, counselors and agencies must provide translators if necessary. Note that to avoid conflict in family roles and to demonstrate respect for parents, it is not appropriate for minor children to be used as translators.

Other ethical issues may become more complicated by immigration status, particularly with undocumented immigrants. Particularly after 9/11, immigrants face legal restrictions of the types of employment available to them. While children who were born in the United States are full citizens, those who came as infants with their parents may still lack the necessary documentation and may face legal challenges to higher education and employment following high school. Thus, counselors should assist and advise clients in obtaining necessary credentials as appropriate, but they should avoid encouraging a client to pursue a career path that may not be legally available.

Finally, when counselors become aware of career barriers related to employment discrimination, it may be appropriate to take an advocacy role to assist the client in obtaining legal support. Before doing this, counselors are ethically obliged to consult with their clients to obtain consent to this role.


  1. American Counseling Association. (2005). Code of ethics and standards of practice. Washington, DC: Author.
  2. Camarota, S. A. (2005). Immigrants at mid-decade: A snapshot of America’s foreign-born population in 2005. Backgrounder. Washington, DC: Center for Immigration Studies.
  3. Cheatham, H. E. (1991). Cultural changes and career changes: The case of Mr. Ebo. Career Development Quarterly, 40(1), 31-35.
  4. Espin, O. M. (1987). Psychological impact of migration on Latinas: Implications for psychotherapeutic practice. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 11, 489-503.
  5. Halstead, R. W. (1991). Career counseling and culture: The case of Ebo. Career Development Quarterly, 40(1), 24-30.
  6. Leong, F. T., & Hartung, P. J. (2000). Adapting to the changing multicultural context of career. In A. Collin & R. A. Young (Eds.), The future of career (pp. 212-227). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Perez-Foster, R. (2001). When immigration is trauma: Guidelines for the individual and family clinician. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 71, 153-170.

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