Volume 54, Number 4 Fall 2021

Print Friendly and PDF

Immigrant Justice

Edited by Sara L. Buckingham, University of Alaska Anchorage and Kevin Ferreira, California State University-Sacramento

Migrating to Inequality: The Invisible Challenges Faced by International Colleagues in the U.S

Written by Gitika Talwar, Student Counseling Center, University of Washington; Alissa Charvonia, Global Community Health Lab, Howard University; Tara G. Mehta, Institute for Juvenile Research, University of Illinois at Chicago

Drawing on the experiences of international graduate students and professionals who live in the United States [U.S.] on temporary “non-immigrant” visas, this paper explores the impact of current U.S. immigration policies on our international colleagues (catch-all term for international graduate students and international professionals on a U.S. visa). Additionally, this paper recommends how fellow professionals and academics in psychology can advocate within their institutions to mitigate the impact of federal immigration policies that perpetuate inequality by restricting the academic and career trajectories of international colleagues. Speaking from first- and secondhand accounts, international colleagues report being drawn to the U.S. for various reasons but face mixed messages upon arriving in the U.S. Pro-migration policies provide a pathway to the U.S. (by way of visas), but we also need policies to protect immigrant rights (pro-immigrant policies) so that international colleagues can be equitably supported through graduate school and beyond. Currently, implicit and explicit anti-immigrant policies at federal and organizational levels curb the autonomy of international colleagues to live in the U.S. on a long-term basis. Existing immigration policies not only limit international colleagues’ choices regarding education and employment but also ignore the value they provide to “U.S. scholarship, cultural exchange, economic competitiveness, and the nation’s health care,” to quote a recent American Psychological Association (APA) statement in support of international students (APA, 2021). Pro-migration policies in the absence of pro-immigrant values leads international colleagues to navigate a fragmented system that imposes barriers to success and makes those challenges invisible to their peers. The authors of this paper make those challenges explicit and provide recommendations to help the field of psychology align its values of equality and justice with action.

To stand in solidarity with international colleagues, begin by recognizing how the legal immigration system impacts them. U.S. immigration laws are designed to ensure that foreign nationals do not displace, unfairly disadvantage, or pose a security risk to U.S. citizens (U.S. Department of Labor, 2016). Hence, there is considerable surveillance to ensure international colleagues strictly comply with visa regulations (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 2021). See Table 1 for a glimpse of how visa policies impact our international colleagues who rely on organizations where they study and/or work to not only sponsor their visas and but also implement federal immigration policies appropriately. Failure to correctly follow the policies can incur a 10-year re-entry ban on the international colleague. Reliance on organizations for their lawful residency in the U.S. heightens the power differential between international colleagues and their visa-sponsoring organization, which negatively impacts their ability to advocate for themselves. Hence, international colleagues lean on the power and privilege of domestic peers to advocate for change.

Implications for Psychology Programs

International colleagues regularly experience inequalities in their career trajectories. International students face heavy restrictions on working off-campus, making them reliant on campus jobs to sustain themselves during graduate school. Hence, when international students are admitted into psychology programs without graduate assistantships, they are unable to support themselves through school. Students applying to post-docs or clinical training internships face a limited pool of training sites because most government-funded training sites cannot hire international students, thus restricting their options for completing the requirements of their program (practicum/internship) and/or clinical licensure (post-doc). Furthermore, some training sites wrongly assume they cannot accept international students. Training sites must fully investigate whether they can accept international students, otherwise they deprive international students of opportunities to fulfill the final requirements for entry into the profession.

Following graduation, an international student must either leave the U.S. or work for a short time on their student visa if the job is connected to their program of study. Alternatively, if they wish to live and work in the U.S. for longer, their prospective employers must petition the U.S. federal immigration system on their behalf. The U.S. employment-based immigration system requires employers to prove that the prospective employee possesses skills that are required in the U.S. labor market, for which U.S. citizen labor is not readily available, and that the position should be eligible for work visa sponsorship (U.S. Department of State, n.d). International students who rely on their educational institution for legal residency in the U.S. become international professionals by relying on potential employers who understand employment-based immigration laws. Anecdotally, it appears that very few employers in the field of Psychology (academic institutions and community-based organizations) understand the work visa sponsorship process. International students are forced to educate prospective employers about the sponsorship process and also assert their eligibility for a work visa. Upon receiving a work visa, there is a three- to six-year limit to lawful residency in the U.S., after which the organization must sponsor a petition for Lawful Permanent Residency (aka Green Card) for the international professional. In the absence of a Green Card, the international professional’s life in the U.S. comes to a complete halt after six years of employment on a work visa and they must leave voluntarily or face deportation. International professionals can be replaced by other international professionals but the lives that international professionals build for themselves and their families are irreplaceable. The limited support from organizations in sponsoring lawful permanent residency (Green Card) contradicts the purported appreciation for international colleagues and lies at the heart of the difference between pro-migration and pro-immigrant policies.

Recommendations to cultivate a pro-immigrant culture & climate in the field of Psychology:

  1. During hiring processes, ensure that all calls for applicants for jobs and programs of study, including calls posted on listservs, ought to specify whether the institution is open to sponsoring visas. Too frequently, international colleagues must guess or find out after a lengthy process that a site is closed to international students or cannot sponsor work visas or Green Cards.
  2. Initiate conversations within your organizations asking about the reasons that work visas and Green Cards may not be sponsored for international colleagues. When organizations’ employment policies oppose the sponsorship of work visas and/or Green Cards, can their hiring policies truly bear out their claim that they “do not discriminate based on national origin”? When prospective employers refuse sponsorship of work visas and/or employment-based Green Cards, they not only devalue international colleagues but also force them to go from graduation to self-deportation, even if they wish to live and serve the U.S. Furthermore, when organizations adopt such a stance, they fail to hire and retain professionals whose lived experience could make them a valuable resource. Community-based organizations could serve immigrant communities better and academic institutions could offer the campus community an important resource around global and international student affairs.
  3. For the duration of their career, international colleagues rely on their visa-controlling organizations to appropriately interpret and implement visa laws. Failure to follow visa regulations can lead to their deportation and/or incur a 10-year ban on re-entering the U.S. At an institutional level, advocates may assess if international colleagues feel adequately supported by the legal counsel hired by the institution and if the International Student Support Services (ISSS) office (or equivalent) has adequate resources to support international students on campus. If the ISSS is inadequately staffed, it leaves a profound burden on the international student to understand visa laws and also educate their advisors and supervisors (at internship and practicum sites). See Madden-Dent et al. (2019) for impact of inadequate support services for international students.
  4. Finally, self-reflect on your assumptions around immigration. For example, does one assume that all immigrants with documentation have full rights and protections in the U.S.? How do these assumptions impact interactions with colleagues? Be open to hearing about disruptions they face due to federal and institutional policies.


Since the field of Psychology strives to uphold the humanity of all individuals, it is imperative that this humanity extends to colleagues who are frequently dehumanized by the immigration system and deal with stressors they could not have imagined prior to migration. The journey from being an international student to international professional in the U.S. requires constant reliance on a larger system - in this case, the institutions many of us occupy - for their lawful residency within the U.S. Pro-migration laws provide people a legal pathway to migrate to the U.S., whereas pro-immigrant laws ensure equality once in the U.S. Without pro-immigrant policies and practice, the legal immigration system creates a class of people who are unwittingly subject to second-class status with no recourse to its reform. Should we choose to accept it, psychologists across the U.S. have an opportunity to stand in solidarity with international colleagues in the U.S. by striving to create a pro-immigrant climate at all levels; from the individual to the systemic.


American Psychological Association. Maintaining flexible length of study for international students. (2021, July 13). Retrieved August 18, 2021 from
Madden-Dent, T., Wood, D., & Roskina, K. (2019). An inventory of international student services at 200 U.S. universities and colleges: Descriptive data of pre-departure and post-arrival supports. Journal of International Students, 9(4), 2166-3750.
U.S. Department of Labor (2016, December). Work authorization for non-U.S. Citizens: Workers in professional and specialty occupations (H-1B, H-1B1, and E-3 Visas).
U.S. Department of State (n.d.). Temporary worker visas.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (2021, March 24). Student and exchange visitor program.