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Stepping into the Murky and Dangerous Waters of Illegal Employment

The need to repay smuggling fees and to contribute to the family’s finances often means that young people are not in school but rather in the labor market, where the competition for jobs is stiff and the risk of being found and deported for working illegally is high. For many young people from immigrant families, poverty and financial hardship are facts of life (Crowley et al. 2006). The labor contribution of children and youth is often crucial for the family’s survival in the United States, just as in their country of origin (Berrol 1995; Song 1999).

Yet unauthorized youth face many barriers entering the labor market because of their inability to work legally. Most feel the frustration of being forced into low-wage jobs or having to work informally alongside their parents. Some find waged employment where they are paid in cash, while others obtain forged documents in order to work, a process they often do not fully understand. Those who do work for cash may do so for seemingly benevolent employers, but some also may face exploitation. Working with false documentation clearly involves undertaking serious legal risks. Suarez-Orozco and colleagues (2011) describe this process as crossing a threshold from a passive and innocent childhood into an adulthood that requires sudden criminality: “Once they dip their toes into the underground waters of false driver’s licenses and Social Security numbers, they are at risk of getting caught in the undertow of a vast and unforgiving ocean of complex legal currents.”

Unfortunately, teen migrants who do not have the support of their families have no other option but to seek employment. Many unauthorized youth, unable to find steady work because of their immigration status, find small side jobs that are insufficient to generate the income they need. One interviewee, Alejandro, obtained his GED but reported that he was unable to find steady employment because everywhere he looked required a Social Security number. He made a small amount of money babysitting and doing other odd jobs but was frustrated by his inability to contribute to his family’s income.

Some community and advocacy organizations have found creative ways to compensate undocumented youth for on-the-job training. One organization in Washington, DC, secured a grant from the DC Council to place immigrant youth as counselors at a summer camp for at-risk youth. The youngsters worked alongside other youth counselors who were employed through the DC Summer Youth Employment program, but they were given educational stipends as opposed to wages. The youngsters and their families were very appreciative of the opportunity to participate in this creative program (Gozdziak and Russell-Jenkins 2013).

Discussions with immigrant youth who fought for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) underscore the importance of securing legal status. Youth with legal status are more likely to stay in school, find employment, and access healthcare. Failure to obtain status adversely affects immigrant children’s lives. The ones without legal status are not able to stand up for their rights, are at risk for discrimination and exploitation, and are more likely to get involved in gangs and to abuse alcohol and drugs. This situation is not good for the children nor for the communities in which they reside.

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