Employment Program for Undocumented Immigrants Only a Temporary Fix

While politicians in Washington are hashing out a framework for immigration reform, a program launched last year that provides short-term work authorization for undocumented immigrants is making the news in California.

A story from New America Media this week says the crisis in adult education services in California could prove to be an impediment to thousands of undocumented youth seeking work permits under the program.

Undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before they were 16 years old or were under the age of 31 when the program took effect can apply for work permits through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. One of the programs requirements is that applicants must have a high school diploma or other educational qualifications.

According to the analysis provided by EdSource, a nonprofit education reporting website, California’s adult education system is deteriorating due to budget woes, low enrollment and other problems, putting young people who want to take courses to qualify for work authorization through Deferred Action in a precarious situation. The irony is that the adult education system is shrinking at a time when demand for such courses is swinging upward.

In the Bay Area, young people who qualified for work permits as a result of Deferred Action are now moving forward with their professional aspirations.

Ayary Diaz, a San Jose resident, recently shared her story on KQED’s California Report” of her struggles with unemployment as an undocumented immigrant. She said her academic accomplishments brought her joy, but also caused sorrow, because her immigration status barred her from applying for jobs. Because of Deferred Action, Diaz now has a Social Security number and a work permit, and is on the path to building her career.

“This is a vindication of everything I’ve worked hard for,” Diaz said. “I can finally come out of the shadows, stop hiding who I am and shine in a country that I’ve always considered my home.”

Last week KALW Public Radio interviewed a student and aspiring lawyer at Mills College in Oakland who recently got a work permit through Deferred Action, so she can now legally work for two years.

Although the Deferred Action program has provisionally changed young undocumented immigrants’ employment status, it doesn’t address the issue of long-term employment. 

“Being told that they have something that’s temporary — two years and that may be taken away at anytime — is certainly a far cry from what they would want and deserve,” Marillia Zelner, who helps students prepare for the Deferred Action program, told KALW.