Paperless and Jobless:The effects of undocumented status
on Latino youth access to employment Elzbieta M. Gozdziak, Institute for the Study of International Migration
Joseph Russell-Jenkins, Institute for the Study of International Migration
Photo Credit: Istvn Benedek
Fu n d e d b y B a r r o w C a d b u r y Tr u s t a n d C a r n e g i e C o r p o ra t i o n o f N e w Yo r k
I nst i tute for the Study of I nternat ional M igrat ion, Georgetown Univers i t y
AcknowledgementsThis paper is part of a larger project on undocumented children and their access to education, health care and employment opportunities carried in collaboration with the Center for Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS) at Oxford. The research project was generously supported by the Barrow Cadbury Trust and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Words of gratitude to Joanna Foote and Eguiar Lizundia for invaluable assistance in conducting interviews and focus group discussions in Spanish and to Nina Laufbahn for masterful copy editing and formatting.
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4I. IntroductionIn the United States, the public discourse on immigration often gravitates toward the subject of unauthorized immigrants. Approximately one-fourth of all immigrants in the US are unauthorized (Surez-Orozco et al., 2011), and yet this controversial group attracts the majority of political and media attention. A large body of literature has examined the lives of unauthorized workers in the US labor force (e.g. Massey, 1987; Massey et al., 2002; Hall et al., 2010). Much less is known about unauthorized children and citizen children living with unauthorized parents, though some research on this group has emerged (e.g. Abrego, 2006; Martnez, 2009; Yoshikawa, 2011; Gonzales, 2011; Surez-Orozco el al., 2011). While these young people are difficult to access and typically do not show up in survey data, it seems clear that they do not follow the conventional patterns of the second-generation immigrants who constitute much of their peer group (Gonzales, 2011).
There are approximately one million unauthorized children and youth growing up in the United States and more than four million citizen children with at least one unauthorized parent (Passel and Cohn, 2010). In total, one in every ten children in the country lives in a mixed status family (Passel, 2006) and children of undocumented parents make up approximately seven percent of school-age children (Passel and Cohn, 2010; Passel and Taylor, 2010). The federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act has drawn attention to this subpopulation. Introduced and debated repeatedly in Congress since 2001, the legislation is intended to assist unauthorized students in obtaining in-state tuition at public universities and offers a path to legal residency for young people meeting certain criteria, but it has languished without success (Migration Policy Institute, 2010; Olivas, 2010). Recently attention has been refocused on the DREAM Act by the administrative decree of the Obama Administration issued in 2012 known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which grants a temporary (two-year) legal status and work permit to young unauthorized immigrants who meet similar qualifications. Yet the media spotlight has tended to shine only on academic success stories and those with aspirations for higher education. Less attention has been given to adolescents who do not want to or are unable to pursue college career.
This essay is part of a larger study on the effects of unauthorized migration on Latino children and youths access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods and aims at improving understanding of the many nuanced effects of undocumented status on employment and livelihood prospects of Latino youth. Research involved one year of ongoing ethnographic fieldwork in three neighborhoods in the larger Washington, DC metropolitan area: Chirilagua, VA, a neighborhood on the border of Alexandria and Arlington in northern Virginia; Langley Park, MD; and Columbia Heights, in DC.
We conducted a total of 27 individual interviews with children and young adults (14 males and 13 females) and one group discussion with eight young adults (two women and six men). The respondents ranged in age from 12 to 22 years old; the majority of the youth were between 15 and 19 years of age. While we did not ask directly about our
interviewees immigration status, virtually all children and youth volunteered this information. Immigration status has impacted their educational and employment pursuits so profoundly that a meaningful discussion about access to opportunities was not possible without mentioning ones status. Ten of the interviewed children were citizen children born in the United States but living in largely undocumented households. One youth had a Temporary Protective Status (TPS), while the remaining of the non-citizen children were unauthorized. They came from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Bolivia, and Colombia. In addition, we interviewed 17 parents (13 mothers and four fathers); six parents were interviewed individually and 11 parents participated in two different group discussions. Five of the parents lived in a household where all members were undocumented; two were part of documented households, while six lived in mixed status households. Four of the interviewed parents did not disclose their immigration status.
Due to the difficulties of identifying working Latino youth directly through employers--who tend to be very hesitant to grant access to their workers--we relied heavily on community-based organizations, including day labor centers, and word-of-mouth to interview working adolescents and young adults. There are relatively few programs in the DC metro area that focus specifically on employment for immigrant youth, however, many advocates as well as other stakeholders had much to say about Latino youth access to employment, poverty of Latino families, and prospects for decent livelihoods. We interviewed 15 stakeholders, including governmental officials in the Office of Latino Affairs (OLA) in the District of Columbia; officials in the DC Public Schools; administrators and teachers in two different charter schools; school social workers; case managers working with low-income families; a program manager at a youth center; and a couple of programs employing immigrant youth as part of the DC Summer Youth Jobs 2012. We also conducted participant observation of community meetings, including a Latino Youth Town Hall organized by OLA; and a focus group discussion on neighborhood safety facilitated by youth from the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC).
In this essay we attempt to explore the circumstances faced by Latino youth in the Washington, DC metropolitan area as they transition into adulthood and analyze the effects of unauthorized status of the young person or other family members on incentives to work and access to the labor market. We argue that while these youth are often pressured to choose waged employment over education in order to contribute to the familys income, their lack of legal immigration status is an incentive to stay in school for the relatively safe legal environment it affords. Once the decision to work has been made, or graduation from high school has forced them out of the safety net (see Gonzales, 2011), the limited options for work available to these youth create difficult decisions wherein some seek work in safe environments for less compensation while others choose more formal, higher-paying positions that come with exposure and high risk. Whichever direction these youth decide to go, it is clear that the social networks (ORegan and Quigley, 1993; Wilson, 1987) and positive mediators
(Gonzales, 2011) that are much hailed in the urban poverty and youth development literature, respectively, take on
added importance in the context of their unauthorized status.
II. The Decision to Work: Facing Conflicting Motivations
For many young people from immigrant families, poverty and financial hardship are facts of life (Crowley, 2006). In these poor and working-class environments, the labor contribution of children and youth is often crucial for the familys survival, in the United States just as in their country of origin (Berrol, 1995; Song, 1999). Furthermore, Bachmeier and Bean (2011) have described the role of labor force participation for Mexican youth as it relates to the decision to drop out of high school, arguing that a strong draw to the labor force is partially a result of cultural factors inherent in working