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  >  Hurwitz Holt   >  IMMIGRATION: Obama work program for young illegal immigrants

IMMIGRATION: Obama work program for young illegal immigrants

September 03, 2012 11:00 am  •  By EDWARD SIFUENTES

Young illegal immigrants who are expected to receive work permits under a new program implemented by the Obama administration could face significant hurdles landing a job even with the federal government’s permission.

With high unemployment in the region, illegal immigrants looking for jobs will face tough competition from other, more established workers, according to activists and experts on the issue. Illegal immigrants could also face employers who may be reluctant to hire people with temporary work permits or legal residency status.

Transportation could be another barrier because the California Department of Motor Vehicles has not determined whether it will issue them driver’s licenses.

“There’s a lot of people looking for work,” said Kelly Cunningham, an economist with the National University System Institute for Policy Research in San Diego. “It’s a tough market for anyone.”

Federal officials announced the program, called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, in June. The program allows illegal immigrants who were brought into the country as children to avoid deportation.

Under the program, some illegal immigrants may also apply for work permits that could be renewed every two years, but they would not get legal immigrant status.

Illegal immigrants would be eligible for the program if they can prove they are 31 years old or younger, have been in the country at least five years, arrived before they turned 16, don’t have a criminal record and graduated from a U.S. high school, earned a GED or are currently in school.

The DMV announced earlier this month it would issue driver’s licenses to people who receive a work permit under the new program. In a statement to the North County Times Wednesday, the DMV backtracked, saying it was not clear what documents the federal government would give people and whether those documents met state regulations to issue the licenses.

Critics, including some local congressmen, have called the program a quasi-amnesty program that could encourage more illegal immigration.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates for stricter immigration policies, said the program also would crowd out legal immigrants and U.S. citizens looking for work.

“We are opposed to the whole program and also granting work authorization,” Mehlman said. “Here you have the administration nullifying the most important deterrent to illegal immigration at a time when employment is the biggest concern among American voters.”

According to the Migration Policy Institute, about 1.76 million illegal immigrants may be eligible for the program, about 460,000 of whom live in California. How many actually qualify will depend on individual circumstances.

Cunningham said those who get a work permit will face difficulties landing a job, depending on their circumstances, as well. Because these are younger, less-educated people, they would likely fare better if they are looking for a jobs that require fewer skills.

Employers offering jobs that require a significant investment in worker training would likely be reluctant to hire a person with a temporary work permit, Cunningham said. 

“There are jobs for technically trained workers, such as telecommunications engineers, and on the other hand we do have the service and visitor industries as well,” Cunningham said. “I would think there would be some opportunities for less-skilled workers (in those industries).”

Since tourist-industry jobs tend to be seasonal, employers would be less likely to care whether work permits are temporary, Cunningham said.

“With our visitor industry, which is seasonal, it wouldn’t be an issue —- but a job that involves training, certainly that would be a concern,” Cunningham said.

On the other hand, employers will likely appreciate highly motivated, immigrant workers, said Matt Holt, an immigration attorney in San Diego.

In his practice, Holt said, he sees many immigrants who are eager to work and appreciate the work permits they receive.

But Holt said he also worries whether employers will feel compelled to fire employees who are now working without a permit but may get a permit under the new program.

“The concern that I have is these people who have work and then get work permits and go back to their jobs and get fired for being dishonest,” Holt said.

That is a double-edged sword because employers could be penalized for hiring illegal immigrants, but also can be fined for potentially violating workers’ rights, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a Washington-based group that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform, including legalizing illegal immigrants who are screened and pay their taxes.

“It’s a very fine line,” Jacoby said. “A lot of employers are worried.”

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