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he phrase undocumented immigrant, or its less charitable counterpart, illegal

T alien, tends to cause a stir in the media. The focus is on the paperwork, the
lack of permission or legal status to be in the United States. However, for
counselors to work effectively with this population, it is helpful to spend some time
considering the second part of that phrase: immigrant.

For a person to decide to leave all undocumented portion of the immigrant
that is known, familiar and comforting population because of the severity of their
behind, he or she is likely in a state needs and the relative scarcity of resources
of considerable duress. Among the to meet those needs.
stressors that push immigrants to leave In terms of definitions, immigrants are
their homes are grinding poverty and people who leave their home country to
starvation, threatened or actual violence, live (temporarily or permanently) in a
extortion from gangs, ethnic or religious host country. They differ from refugees,
discrimination and lack of hope that their which are defined as individuals fleeing
situation will improve. Whether their persecution, war or natural disaster. The
journey involves hiding in a container United Nations classifies refugees as a
in a cargo ship, clinging to the top of protected group, and if a host country
a moving train or walking through offers these individuals asylum, it comes
difficult terrain, it is not a decision to be with automatic legal status. Immigrants
taken lightly. Such a journey can last for can apply to receive temporary legal status
months and be extremely perilous. based on a special function (such as a
A person who decides to undertake work visa or student visa), or they may
such a journey as the “best available become eligible for residency through a
option” is already living in a state qualified family member who is a U.S.
of physical, mental and emotional citizen. However, there are caps on each
deprivation. We encourage counselors category (i.e., not every person who
to consider the challenges posed by the wishes to come to the U.S. to work or
pervasive stressors present in the person’s study may do so). Deferred Action for
home country, the possible trauma Childhood Arrivals (more commonly
encountered on the journey and the known as DACA) is a temporary
difficulty of living in the shadows in a permission to work that does not provide
new land where so much is strange true legal standing in the U.S., and it can
and unfamiliar. potentially be revoked by executive action.
We have several goals with this article. It is important to have a trusted
We wish to clarify terminology and source for accurate information about
definitions to generate an accurate immigration, especially when so much
understanding of this population, inaccurate information abounds in
describe some of the challenges facing other public sources. In particular,
families with undocumented members counselors may wish to become familiar
in the United States, outline some with eligibility for health and human
commonly occurring mental health issues services for undocumented immigrants.
among undocumented immigrants and A helpful source for this information is
provide counselors with some resources the National Immigration Law Center
and ideas about how to respond to website {, which provides details
these clients. In addition to building about eligibility for health care services,
individual capacity to respond among education, workers’ rights, driver’s
counselors, we hope to inspire advocates licenses, economic support programs and
in our profession to consider systems- so on.
level responses or ways we can promote It also is important for counselors to
more equitable access to the support be aware that differences exist between
systems that undocumented immigrants federal and state immigration policies
often need. We are focusing on the and practices. Some states have created

April 2017 | Counseling Today | 35
restrictive laws to govern activities such as undocumented in today’s hostile
as enrolling an undocumented child political climate, so finding an advocate
in school, presenting for services in an is not a straightforward process. Adults
emergency room and applying for a who are familiar with the signs and
driver’s license. Thus, it is incumbent signals that a youth (or a youth’s family
upon counselors to understand the adults to have experienced member) may be undocumented — for
climate and laws within their states and some form of trauma example, not driving, not applying
local communities. The current policy to college even with a good academic
climate is changing rapidly, so staying up during their journey record, having many absences from
to date is essential. to the U.S., so there is school that are not typical — may
an accumulation of find ways to reach out and indirectly
C o m m o n c h a lle n g e s
inquire about the youth’s circumstances
Each immigrant family with at stressors that can become or offer resources. Counselors might
least one undocumented member is
wish to review websites such as the
unique, but some typical challenges do
Department of Education’s Resource
exist. For adult immigrants who are
Guide: Supporting Undocumented
undocumented, there are daily concerns
You th (www2.
about detection by the authorities,
supporting-undocumented-youth.pdf and
potential deportation and separation
the UCLA clearinghouse of resources on
from other family members. Even an act poverty, lack of services, etc. But some
undocumented youth {smhp.psych.ucla.
as simple as driving to the grocery store of their concerns are different. In most
edu/qflundoc. html).
can be perilous without a driver’s license, cases, these youth will have access to basic
so undocumented immigrants may K-12 education, so they often acculturate U sing e c o lo g ic a l system s th e o r y
adopt the mantra “trust no one” and try to U.S. language and culture norms more It is important that counselors
to live in the shadows, undetected. The quickly than do their parents. This can be understand the singular environmental
newest guidelines from the Department difficult in the early phases of adjustment, factors and societal barriers that have
of Homeland Security ( but it does bring some benefit in terms the potential to affect the development
orders-protecting-homeland) include of language proficiency, educational and mental health of undocumented
a broader definition of priorities for opportunity and socialization. youth and families. This understanding
deportation. This change has generated However, when their friends start can prepare counselors to apply more
enormous fear in the immigrant moving through rites of passage such effective strategies when working with
community. as getting a driver’s license, landing a undocumented clients or families.
Many undocumented immigrants must first job or applying to college, youth Urie Bronfenbrenner’s ecological
work jobs in which they are paid as part who are undocumented or who have an systems theory may be a particularly
of the underground economy. Thus, undocumented parent have a strikingly helpful tool for counselors in this regard.
they are not able to speak out against divergent experience. Some are already Bronfenbrenner’s theory describes
unsafe workplace conditions or unfair aware of their legal status, but other human development in terms of
or discriminatory practices for fear of youth first learn about their lack of interactions between individuals’ personal
retribution. These jobs often pay poverty- documentation when they ask their characteristics and their environmental
level wages and involve hard manual labor. parents to assist with these normative systems. The five environmental systems
Some undocumented immigrants work tasks. At this point, some youth become are the microsystem, mesosystem,
more than one job to make ends meet. disillusioned and depressed, believing exosystem, macrosystem and
Adults who are undocumented are also that all of their dreams and aspirations chronosystem.
unlikely to have access to needed services are now beyond their reach. W ithout a The microsystem is the most
such as health, legal, educational and socially sanctioned way to participate in immediate environment in which
other social support services, so they have society, these youth may become involved an individual interacts. For children,
unmet needs in terms of physical and in maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., microsystems commonly consist of a
mental health. In addition, it is common gang involvement, substance abuse). small group of people, such as parents,
for these adults to have experienced Other undocumented youth become siblings, schoolteachers, friends and
some form of trauma — physical or more determined and start fighting to classmates. The mesosystem is the
sexual assault, robbery, threats, extortion, achieve their goals, even if they have to interaction between microsystems, such
bearing witness to murder — during create new systems outside of the defined as the communications between parents
their journey to the U.S., so there is legal structures. and teachers.
an accumulation of stressors that can In both cases, it is unlikely that their The exosystem is outside of one’s direct
become quite profound. parents will be able to provide much interaction but still has the potential
Youth living in a family with at least assistance, so undocumented youth to impact one’s mental health and
one undocumented member experience will almost always need advocates or development because it directly influences
some of the same stressors — concerns champions from outside of their group to members of one’s microsystem. This
about deportation of a family member, assist them. It is risky to identify oneself might include a parent’s relationship

36 | | April 2017
with his or her boss or co-workers, or youth to include additional people, such example is the relationship between
a teacher’s relationship with his or her as teammates, music teachers and coaches. a child’s schoolteacher and parents.
principal. A common example of the Immigration, and particularly Language differences between parents and
influence of the exosystem on someone is undocumented immigration, may also teachers can affect the strength of this
that of a parent who feels unappreciated change traditionally microsystemic relationship, which can in turn reduce the
and disrespected at work and then relationships into exosystemic ability of undocumented parents to be
displaces that anger and frustration onto relationships. For example, it is common fully involved in their child’s school. This
his or her children. for undocumented families to immigrate can prove particularly challenging when
The macrosystem is the largest to the United States in waves, with a difficult and complicated situations such
ecological system. It includes cultural parent initially leaving children with as discrimination or bullying occur.
values and beliefs, and political and extended family members. This can The indirect aspect of the exosystem
economic systems. The chronosystem, lead to parents becoming part of their may be particularly pronounced with
which includes constancy and change, children’s exosystem for a period of undocumented youth and families.
reflects the influence of time on one’s time. Later, when children are able to Parents who are trying to make ends
development. immigrate to the United States to reunite meet but who are not legally allowed
Undocumented immigrant status with their parents, the relationship to work in the United States may work
can influence all aspects of a person’s rapidly shifts back to one that is long hours at very low-paying jobs and
ecological system. In the microsystem, microsystemic. These sudden shifts in experience exploitation, prejudice and
immigration may affect the relationships interactions can require an adjustment discrimination. Parents who experience
among and between family members. period and strain the relationships financial stress and fear of potential
The combination of fewer community between undocumented youth and their deportation may inadvertently displace
and financial resources plus the need parents. Changes in microsystems can their preoccupations onto their children
to stay obscure or in the shadows may also occur as the result of other factors in the form of irritation and frustration.
reduce the number of microsystems that such as deportation. This can negatively impact the mental
undocumented youth and families have. Undocumented immigration may health and development of these youth.
For example, documented youth may also influence the mesosystem, or The macrosystem also may have a
engage in more extracurricular activities interactions between microsystems, profound effect on mental health and
than do undocumented youth. This particularly in reference to the quality development. In particular, marginalized
expands the microsystems of documented and frequency of such interactions. One groups such as undocumented youth

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April 2017 | Counseling Today | 37
and families are particularly vulnerable
to economic and political trends.
This is certainly true in reference
to the legislation and execution ol
laws associated with undocumented
immigration. As previously mentioned,
R e a lity T h e ra p y undocumented youth who learn of their
undocumented status and the barriers
a n d S e lf-E v a lu a tio n : associated with that status in terms
of securing education, employment,
a driver’s license and so on may be
T h e K e y t o C lie n t C h a n g e
particularly susceptible to feelings of
Robert E. Wubbolding despair, hopelessness, helplessness, anxiety
and fear.
“Dr. Robert W ubbolding has written a very
Reality Therapy Unique factors associated with the
{HrUK * helpful book explaining a n d extending the role
Self-Evaluation: chronosystem also may be in play
o f clients self-evaluating their behavior. He
with individuals and families who
provides practical strategies fo r creating action
Tit* R i U j io are undocumented. In particular,
plans that lead to positive behavioral change
the possibility of change, such as
a n d his cases a n d sample dialogues bring these
deportation, may constantly be on
strategies to life. ”
the minds of undocumented youth or
— Gerald Corey, EdD members of their microsystems. Changes
Professor Emeritus of Human Services (or a lack thereof) in immigration
and Counseling policies and laws may also affect the
California State University, Fullerton mental health of undocumented
individuals. For example, in 2010,
“This is another brilliant book by Dr. Robert Dreamers anxiously awaited the prospect
Wubbolding, long-time trusted associate o f the late W illiam Glosser; M D . It is of gaining citizenship through federal
an insightfid guide to the process o f s e lf evaluation, which is a reliably effective legislation (known as the Dream Act).
way to fu lfill your own needs a n d be happy. ” However, this legislation was met with
— Carleen Glasser barriers and did not pass Congress.
President, William Glasser, Inc. This was a huge blow to many who
were leaning on this legislation for
This unique resource discusses the core concepts of self-evaluation the prospect of stability, opportunities
and the WDEP system of reality therapy, and answers the commonly for education and careers, and other
asked question: “How do I intervene with clients who appear to privileges of full citizenship.
be unmotivated to make changes in their behavior?” Detailed More recently, political rhetoric and
interventions and sample counselor-client dialogues throughout the actions associated with securing the U.S.
book illustrate work with clients dealing with posttraumatic stress, border and enforcing immigration laws
anger issues, grieving and loss, self-injury, antisocial behavior, more strictly have created a great deal of
career concerns, relationship problems, and more. Dr. Wubbolding’s uncertainty and fear in undocumented
techniques are readily applicable to mental health and educational immigrant communities.
settings, with cross-cultural application to clients of various ages.
Strategies for w orking
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Please include $ 8 .7 5 fo r shipping o f the first book and their families. With respect to the
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a space for undocumented youth and
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their experiences of discrimination,
exploitation and barriers. Helping parents
to express their frustrations may reduce
the chances of them displacing anger
and frustration onto other members of
the family unit. Counselors can also help
parents problem-solve and cope with

3 8 | c t.c o u n s e lin g .o r g | A p r i l 2 0 1 7
challenging aspects of their lives, such as better access to community resources session with his 45-year-old mother,
dealing with disrespectful co-workers or and so on. It also may take the form Elizabeth, who also speaks Spanish and is
prejudicial bosses. In addition, counselors of advocating against movements or undocumented. Elizabeth shares with you
can help parents prepare for worst-case legislation that would be harmful to that she immigrated alone to the United
scenarios, such as steps they could take in undocumented youth and their families. States 10 years ago. Because of financial
the event that one or both parents were Counselors can also help youth difficulties, she had to leave Marcus with
detained or deported. and families draw upon and cultivate her parents in her country of origin.
Concerning the mesosystem, counselors resilience. This may take the form of A few months before this first session,
can help youth and families develop their helping clients to remember the struggles Marcus was able to join his mother in
relationships with other microsystems, and obstacles they have already been the U.S. Elizabeth shares that Marcus
such as teachers and other school through and rediscover the strengths they refuses to call her “mom” and acts very
personnel. In particular, it is important possess that have helped them navigate standoffish toward her.
for counselors to help undocumented these trials. Marcus shares that he doesn’t know
youth and parents brainstorm ways why he had to come to the United
to respond to school personnel about C a s e s tu d y States. He says that he was happy in his
school issues such as academic struggles, The following is a brief case study of country of origin and misses his friends,
behavioral challenges, discrimination a counseling experience that one of the grandparents and cousins. He also says
and bullying. W ith clients’ permission, article authors had with an undocumented that he doesn’t like school, that English is
counselors working with undocumented family. Specific names and circumstances difficult for him to learn and that students
youth and families may also consider have been changed to protect the at the school pick on him. He says he can
taking on an advocacy role with school family’s identity. Many of the details of understand the names the other kids call
systems, particularly when discrimination this case are common experiences that him and the mean things they say. He
and unresolved bullying are occurring. undocumented families face. doesn’t have enough command of English
W ith respect to the macrosystem, to fight back with his words, however, so
counselors may consider advocating Marcus, an undocumented immigrant he uses his fists. Marcus has used his fists
for changes in the law regarding who is 14 and speaks Spanish, was to fend off verbal attacks a number of
illegal immigration. This may include referred to you by the school social times and, on each occasion, he has been
advocating for pathways to citizenship, worker. Marcus attends the first suspended from school.

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April 2017 | Counseling Today \ 39
The counselor also might assess In addition, we recommend the
In this case example, Marcus’ Marcus’ exosystem by understanding the following books for those who wish to
microsystem changed suddenly. He stressors that Elizabeth faces in her daily deepen their personal understanding
was uprooted from the only life he had life. These include working multiple of the narratives of undocumented
known, where he had friends and close jobs, experiencing pressure from family immigrants:
connections to extended family. Using members in her country of origin to
Bronfenbrenner’s model as a reference, we ❖ Enrique’s Journey: The Story o f a Boy’s
help out financially and dealing with
see that Marcus was separated from his Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite With His
ongoing fears of deportation. If Elizabeth
ecological system — a system in which Mother by Sonia Nazario
is facing a great deal of stress and anxiety,
he knew the explicit and implicit cultural Underground America: Narratives o f
the counselor could take care to validate
beliefs, values and rules and interacted Undocumented Lives compiled and
Elizabeth’s emotions and provide her with
with people who looked like him and edited by Peter Orner
stress-reduction tools.
shared his language. His microsystem
The counselor can work with Marcus to
changed from that of friends,
develop healthy strategies for dealing with
grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins
the verbal abuse he reports experiencing at
to that of his mother and a schoolteacher.
school. The counselor also might work to Knowledge Share articles
Furthermore, Marcus’ mother, who
broaden Marcus’ microsystem by looking are developed from sessions
for many years had been part of his
into community programs in which presented at American Counseling
exosystem — someone who influenced
Marcus might be interested, including Association conferences.
his life indirectly but didn’t interact with
him outside of an occasional phone sports programs, after-school programs or
a mentorship program. Laura M. Gonzalez is an associate
call and letter — became his primary
professor in the School of
microsystem. Elizabeth, who missed her Conclusion and resources Education at the University of
son dearly and felt guilty for not being Seemingly insurmountable barriers exist North Carolina at Greensboro,
there to raise him, wanted desperately to for undocumented children and families, having received a Ph.D. in
pick up where they had left off before she but counselors can take a number of counselor education from North
immigrated to the United States. Marcus
steps to facilitate the mental health Carolina State University and
was not able to reciprocate her feelings, an M.Ed. in college counseling
of these clients. It can be particularly
which hurt Elizabeth deeply. from the University of Delaware.
helpful to conceptualize undocumented
Although Elizabeth had lived in the In addition, she has conducted
families’ circumstances from a systemic
United States for a decade, she had research and outreach to the
perspective, such as Bronfenbrenner’s
interacted primarily with other Spanish Latino immigrant community with
ecological systems theory. It also is helpful
speakers and largely remained in the the goal of enhancing educational
to validate clients’ experiences while
shadows to avoid detection. Therefore, access. Contact her at lmgonza2@
drawing upon their resources, including
she struggled to communicate with
the resilience and skills they have used to
school personnel at Marcus’ school and
did not know how to help her son deal overcome past trials and struggles.
Nathaniel N. Ivers is an assistant
with the bullying that he experienced. Finally, it is important for counselors
professor in the Department
The counselor should take into account to be aware of the resources that exist
of Counseling at Wake Forest
a number of factors when conceptualizing to help undocumented families. The
University. He received his
and treating this family. Systemically, it following resources will get you started. master's in counseling from Wake
is important to recognize the changes ❖ The American Psychological Forest University and a Ph.D.
(chronosystem) that have occurred in the Association’s guide to working with in counseling and counselor
lives of both Elizabeth and Marcus and immigrant-origin clients: education from the University
how they are adjusting to those changes. topics/immigration/immigration-report- of North Carolina at Greensboro.
The counselor might help Elizabeth professionals.pdf He has published research and
recognize the adjustments that Marcus is ❖ Immigrant Legal Resource Center: conceptual papers related to
experiencing and assist her in developing
ilrc. org/for-immigrants-para- Latino immigrants and has
realistic expectations regarding their provided counseling to the
relationship. It also would be beneficial Spanish-speaking immigrant
The College Board guidance on population in North Carolina.
to further assess her relationship and
interactions with Marcus’ school advising undocumented students: Contact him at
(mesosystem) and co-construct strategies professionals, collegeboard. com/guidance/
to help her figure out what is going on in financial-aid/undocumented-stndents Letters to the editor:
school and how to advocate for her son. ❖ Kaiser Family Foundation
The counselor also might consider ways information on access to health care:
that he or she can advocate appropriately kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.ivordpress.
on behalf of the family. com/2013/02/8420.p d f

40 | | A p ril 2017
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