Work/Life

This Is What Job Hunting While Undocumented Can Be Like

Undocumented professionals in education, activism and STEM share how uncertain futures shape their career ambitions.
"Undocuprofessionals" face unique challenges while job hunting and career planning, with and without DACA.
"Undocuprofessionals" face unique challenges while job hunting and career planning, with and without DACA.

Job hunting and interviewing are already nerve-wracking and stressful challenges. But for the estimated 98,000 undocumented students with and without DACA status who graduate from high school every year, looking for a job and embarking on a career path comes with additional responsibilities and risks.

Since former President Barack Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program into law in 2012, many of the 700,000 people currently active in the program have graduated schools and become undocumented professionals. Designed for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, DACA provides relief from deportation and a work permit that needs to be renewed every two years, but it does not provide a pathway to citizenship or access to most government benefits, and its future is uncertain. The Trump administration ordered an end to the DACA program in September 2017, and the Supreme Court will hear arguments on the case in November.

It’s under this cloud that undocumented professionals live and work every day as they apply for jobs and plan their futures. How can anyone plan a career when facing possible deportation? Harvard University sociologist Roberto Gonzales, who has interviewed thousands of DACA-eligible undocumented youth for his research, said they’ve been experiencing increasing worry about their families and futures since 2017. “They’re at a real crossroads and in a profound state of limbo,” he said.

“Our life continues to be on hold,” said Sharet Garcia, a DACA recipient who is the founder of Undocuprofessionals, an Instagram page that highlights their stories. “They don’t understand how much they’re playing with our lives.”

The decision to disclose immigration status in a job interview is fraught.

DACA recipients are under no legal obligation to disclose their status to a hiring manager during a job interview. But it’s a question that’s often present.

Garcia said the decision to disclose is “sensitive,” but she’s chosen to do so in three interviews when she felt it would help her as a candidate. “It was scary to do it,” Garcia said, adding that she would research prospective interview questions the companies she was applying for would ask and wanted to be honest when answering. When she made the switch from the business sector to education, the choice would come up whenever an interviewer asked, “What can you bring to the table?” or “What makes you stand out from other candidates?”

“You’re not just saying, ‘Oh, I’m undocumented,’” Garcia said. “It has to be a very important reason why you’re disclosing that and elaborating why that makes you a diverse person that can come and bring new ideas to the table.”

A company’s response to hearing a prospective employee is a DACA ally or applicant may also provide useful information about what kind of future employer they will be. “I want to work with a district that supports my community and doesn’t work against it,” said Xiomara Sanchez, who graduated in 2017 from UCLA, and is still new to the job market.

A teacher-in-training at a Los Angeles Unified School District high school and a DACA recipient, Sanchez said she would not bring up her immigration status until after she was hired or after multiple rounds of interviews, because she wouldn’t want it to be a factor in the hiring decision. When interviewers ask, “Do you have any questions for us?” Sanchez said she has asked questions such as, “What are you doing as a company for the undocumented community?” or “Is there any professional development that’s geared towards this specific community?”

“This strategy, for me, has worked,” Sanchez said. “Some of them say, ‘No, this isn’t a community for us, we’re not really active within this specific community.’ For me, that’s kind of a cue for me that this is not a good time to share my undocumented status yet.’”

Others may just want to share their truth. But recent instances of employment discrimination highlight the risks of sharing DACA status with hiring managers. In one complaint, a woman named Sandy Vasquez alleged that her 2018 interview at Palo Alto technology firm VMware abruptly ended when she was asked about her citizenship and told a company recruiter she was authorized to work through DACA. VMware called the recruiter’s decision a “mistake.” In other cases, federal judges have said that DACA workers are a protected class ― meaning they cannot be discriminated against on that basis ― but that doesn’t mean employers on the whole know and follow best practices.

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented Vasquez and others, told HuffPost he thinks DACA job-seekers have frequently been barred from jobs in the seven years of the program’s existence. “Some of it may be inadvertent because of an ignorance in human resources staff about DACA and what it is,” he said. “Whether it’s inadvertent or a policy decision, it still has the same negative impact on the potential employee.”

“Young people ... are crafting what we call ‘imagined futures.' That is, they’re having to think about and plan for futures both here and in their countries of origin.”

- Roberto Gonzales

Job hunting without DACA presents even more hurdles.

Applying for jobs brings additional considerations for undocumented professionals without DACA. For example, Alex — one of several people HuffPost agreed to identify by first name only — came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 16 years old and is an undocumented professional without DACA. A few months before he graduated from a school in the University of California system, Alex said he encountered challenges trying to get hired. He said he would try to dodge the citizenship question and wind up going back and forth with HR reps a few times. “They would want a more firm answer,” Alex said.

Alex said he changed tactics when he was applying for graduate school and inquiring about possible funding sources. “I was very forthcoming about my status,” Alex said. “I realized that previously, I would go through the whole process and it wouldn’t work at the end.”

For Alex, who started a Ph.D. program in bioengineering this summer, the biggest challenge launching a career in STEM while undocumented is funding. Most doctoral students in science are supported through fellowships, scholarships or assistantships. But federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation make undocumented students ineligible for such funding, limiting options. “It’s challenging to find a job and to find funding for it,” Alex said.

DACA students and undocumented students without DACA are ineligible for federal student financial aid. Some states, including California, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas and Washington, allow undocumented students to get state financial aid. In California, the state allows allows eligible students who have attended a California high school to pay in-state tuition at California colleges and universities California through Assembly Bill 540.

“Qualifying for AB540 definitely opens up the fellowships,” Alex said. “It allows me to go to school and do research that I think it would difficult to do in another state.”

“The undocuhustle is real.”

Some undocuprofessionals find self-employment to be an easier path; independent contracting and consulting are popular options. Although companies cannot knowingly hire an unauthorized worker, they are not obligated to check if an independent contractor has work authorization, and a worker can use their individual tax identification number on a W-9 form to start working.

Other undocuprofessionals have chosen to start limited liability companies, as did Cesar Vargas, New York state’s first openly undocumented lawyer. Between graduating from City University of New York in 2011 and winning his four-year legal fight to practice law, Vargas, who was then undocumented, created an LLC to allow himself to consult on immigration policies for legal groups. “If no one’s going to hire me, then let me create my own company, let me create my own market so I can obviously pay the bills but also develop professionally,” Vargas said.

Cesar Vargas, New York state’s first openly undocumented lawyer, worked as a consultant to support himself before he won his court battle to practice law.
Cesar Vargas, New York state’s first openly undocumented lawyer, worked as a consultant to support himself before he won his court battle to practice law.

Iliana Perez, a DACA recipient and director of research and entrepreneurship at the San Francisco-based organization Immigrants Rising, wrote a comprehensive guide on life after college for undocumented students. Perez said the biggest challenge she sees with being an undocumented independent contractor is developing an entrepreneurial mindset for creating income-generation opportunities.

She uses herself as an example. Perez took independent contractor jobs on Craigslist after college ― jobs unrelated to what she had studied ― to support herself. “When I had just graduated college, I didn’t really have a choice,” said Perez, who graduated before DACA, adding that, “Ultimately had I not stumbled upon that many years ago, I would not have known that was a possibility.”

Perez said there can be a disconnect between how the world talks about entrepreneurship and how it views the work of immigrants, who have a rich entrepreneurial history to draw from. “Immigrants have a strong background in entrepreneurship, whether it’s street vendors, whether it’s ... parents of undocumented individuals who have started their own business in landscaping or house-cleaning services, and a lot of people don’t recognize them as entrepreneurs,” she said.

Trump’s rescission of DACA has undocumented professionals preparing for how they will earn a living if they lose work authorization.

“The undocuhustle is real,” said a California resident named Mecir, a coordinator for undocumented student services who DJs on the side to support himself. “Those extra $150 that I get in an hour are $150 that I didn’t have that could potentially cover something in my education in the future, or keep me afloat for another month, or a car payment, or a bill that I have to pay. I have to think about the future because I don’t know what it holds.”

Being an undocumented professional means having to plan for multiple futures.

“The young people we’ve been talking to are crafting what we call ‘imagined futures,’” said Gonzales, the Harvard sociologist. “That is, they’re having to think about and plan for futures both here and in their countries of origin.”

Esmeralda, a DACA recipient working in Nevada who has been in the U.S. since she was three months old, said she has considered going back to Mexico as an option. “If it’s too much for me here, I will consider leaving,” she said. “I understand it’s a definite risk, because I won’t be able to come back and I have a lot of my family here with mixed status. It’s a lot to think about. It’s all about survival. If we can’t survive here, I need to start thinking outside of the box.”

Working in a different country is also an option some are considering. “On the one side, I’m planning, ‘What am I going to do in the U.S.?’” said Alex, who ideally wants a post-doc position at a university. “But at the same time, I’m also thinking, ‘Do I have to move abroad? What does that look like?’”

“We always have it in the back of our head, we always are aware the DACA is not permanent or not permanent yet,” Sanchez said. If she were to lose DACA, she said she may be able to get the teaching credential she seeks, but would not be able to exercise it: “My whole professional career would end.”

At the same time, Sanchez said her concern about DACA’s future is not stopping her from gaining whatever experience she can get now. “I always tell my students, ‘I am not planning my future by DACA ending. I am planning my future by DACA continuing, because I’m doing something about it to continue. I am getting involved in my community.’”

Garcia uses her own story as an example of why she advises undocuprofessionals to be flexible in their job hunt. She drives an hourslong commute to get to her job in education in San Diego. “Those that know my situation understand why I do that commute,” Garcia said. “Because of DACA being something that is not permanent, I have to get what I can right now, because this is one stepping stone to my next career move.”

The undocuprofessionals advised people in their situation to not give up and maintain hope. “No matter how many times we start all over, we’ll make it work. We started over when we immigrated from another country,” said Sanchez, who immigrated from Nayarit, Mexico, when she was in elementary school. “No matter where I am or what happens, I’ll be able to continue my work with my community and as an educator.”

Nuestras Voces Unidas (Our Voices United) is a HuffPost series created to honor Hispanic Heritage Month and amplify the diverse voices within the community. Find all of our coverage here.