When Belen Sisa was six years old, she and her mother followed her father to the United States from Argentina on a visa. He had arrived a year before to look for work, and the rest of the family relocated with the hope of giving Sisa a better education. They overstayed their visas while settling in Arizona, where she eventually attended a high school just a few miles away from an immigration detention center.
“I didn’t really understand what being undocumented meant until I got to high school, when I needed to get my driver’s license, when it was time for everyone to apply for their first jobs, when it was time to start filling out college applications,” she recalled. “There were things that I was missing like a Social Security number, like an I.D. It really started to set in that I was in a different situation.”
Now 23 years old and a student at Arizona State University, Sisa faces a question that plagues many undocumented millennials entering adulthood today: “How do I land a job?” In 2012, the aspiring lawyer breathed a sigh of relief when President Barack Obama announced the launch of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which, aside from providing temporary relief from deportation, grants recipients a two-year work authorization. Last year, 42.5 percent of those beneficiaries said they were able to get their first job and 62.5 percent said they got a job with better pay, according to a survey conducted by University of California, San Diego assistant professor Tom K Wong; the National Immigration Law Center; think tank Center for American Progress; and immigrant youth advocacy group United We Dream.
“Not only are we seeing higher rates of employment and wage growth, but we’re seeing respondents say, ‘I have become more financially independent,’” said Wong. “We’re seeing respondents say, ‘I’ve been able to help my family financially.’”
Still, many challenges to entering the workforce remain. Not all undocumented millennials qualify for DACA, for instance, because recipients must have arrived in the country before their 16th birthday. Those who are protected by the policy, like Sisa, say that applying for DACA is expensive—the filing fee, which is separate from the cost of applying for a work license, is $495 alone—and doesn’t guarantee certain protections citizens have.
“If I were to ever get hurt at work, for example, or if I were to be fired, unemployment [benefits are] not something that’s available to DACA recipients,” she said. “Getting health insurance through the Affordable Care Act is not something that DACA recipients are eligible for. Social Security is another thing, even though I’ve paid into the system.”
When Sisa received a work permit in 2013, she continued to run into roadblocks. After briefly working for an immigration attorney, she applied for student jobs that were flexible to her schedule. Many employers were skeptical of her employment authorization card and asked for more documents.
“During the job interviews, they liked me and offered me the jobs,” she said. “But when it came to the process of getting the paperwork, they, for some reason, were asking me for additional I.D. They wanted me to show them my passport. There was a very insensitive way of going about trying to verify that something’s a real document.”
Sisa’s situation is common for many DACA recipients. Aside from the doubt employers have expressed over their identification, some DACA millennials have found it hard to explain gaps in their employment history. As a child, Denisse Rojas Marquez immigrated to Fremont, California from Mexico. She later studied at a health profession program at the University of California, Berkeley but soon had difficulty gaining even entry-level experience.
“For example, even just volunteering at a hospital, sometimes they do background checks on you,” she said. “How do you do that if you’re undocumented? No one really knew the answers. I had to navigate everything on my own, and it was really isolating and frustrating.”
The exasperation led Rojas, now a student at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and a friend to create Pre-Health Dreamers, a national organization that provides resources to undocumented youth like herself. In California, they led an effort to let the state’s licensing boards give licenses to undocumented professionals. Barriers to these licenses often keep DACA students from pursuing careers in their fields of interest, said Roberto G. Gonzales, an assistant professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
“People tend to think about medicine and law, but there are all these other things [that mandate a license], like a nail technician and a massage therapist,” he said. “There’s a real lack of knowledge about this, and sometimes young people are going through these programs only to find out that they’re not eligible for the license after they finish.”
For undocumented millennials who are not covered by DACA, transitioning from school to work is even tougher. While President Obama’s program offers more than 750,000 immigrants (most of whom are Mexican) the chance to work legally, that number pales in comparison to the potential millions of undocumented immigrants who have very few places where they can apply their education.
In 2011, Valeria Avila Guerrero and her family left Mexico for Virginia after her father lost his job and drug cartels became increasingly violent in her town. At the time, she was 16 years old. Today, she is a senior studying mechanical engineering at Santa Clara University in California. Though she hopes to work at NASA, she faces uncertain prospects.
“It’s vital I get some type of exposure in my field because school is not enough to build enough intuition as an engineer,” she wrote in an email. “I’ve gotten multiple job offers but the main challenge is having me hired legally since I’m non-DCA.”
Since President Donald Trump took office in January, the outlook for unprotected students like Guerrero has gotten bleaker. The current administration has vowed to crack down on undocumented immigrants, many of whom haven’t been back to their countries in years, even decades. Some millennials who fall in this category may not have the chance to pursue their careers unless comprehensive immigration reform, which would have to include a legal pathway to citizenship, happens.
“If we’re talking specifically here about career opportunities, it’s just a really different game for people who I would call ‘truly undocumented,’” said Katharine Gin, executive director of Educators for Fair Consideration, which advocates for undocumented youth. “They do not have any lawful presence in this country and don’t have any work authorization versus someone who has DACA.”
Gin’s organization, also known as E4FC, has worked with students, regardless of their status, to create a future of their own. Some of them are encouraged to look into independent contract work, which requires an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, a tax processing number that all immigrants can receive. E4FC also provides grants to those who want to start their own businesses through the Fund for Undocumented Social Entrepreneurs or FUSE.
“One of the things we’re doing now is trying to understand what other individuals are out there,” said Iliana G. Perez, E4FC’s Entrepreneurship Initiatives Manager. “There’s a level of concern regarding immigration status because even [owners of] businesses don’t have to talk about [it].”
Last year, Cris Mercado won a FUSE grant for KeyJargon, a mobile career app that helps young professionals connect with industry influencers. Like Sisa, Mercado emigrated from the Philippines to get a better education. He was accepted to New York University, his first college choice, but the school pulled his scholarship after discovering that he didn’t have a green card.
“That’s when my first academic and career pivot happened,” he said. “It was too late to go into the engineering program, so I became a psychology major at the City College of New York.”
Mercado then aimed to become a college professor but, due to his status, lost out on a fellowship that would have made him an adjunct professor. Realizing his options were limited, he created KeyJargon.
“Entrepreneurship isn’t even a career,” Mercado said. “It’s a calling, and it wasn’t my calling. I was forced into it, and I had to learn things on my own because I had no role models around me who were entrepreneurs.”
Given the lack of jobs available in the United States, some undocumented millennials have decided to leave the country altogether to pursue better opportunities. Such is the case for David Cruz, who emigrated from Mexico when he was 17 years old. The budding scientist studied chemistry and molecular biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, went onto a master’s program at San Francisco State University, and conducted research at Stanford University. Recently, the 28-year-old was accepted to a Ph.D. program at the University of Oxford in England and has decided to leave his family in the United States this summer to resume his studies.
“When I finished my undergrad, I realized it was going to be difficult to be in this country to try to pursue a scientific career because of my situation,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking. My family is here, and I’ve been in this country for so long.”
Cruz hopes to return to his family and find work in the United States in the near future but admits that the current political climate will make it difficult.
“My home is here,” he said. “The problem is that to come back to this country, in this situation as an undocumented immigrant, it complicates things.”