Undocumented youth are an integral part of the United States. Regardless of documentation status, immigrants contribute to our country—supporting their families, serving their communities, and contributing to local, state and national economies. However, the nearly 2.1 million undocumented youth under the age of 24 are often left out of opportunities and programs, and therefore face uncertainty about their job prospects and futures. A recent proposal of a Youth Opportunity Guarantee of education, training, and employment by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality seeks to make sure that all young people, including undocumented youth, have access to quality education and an opportunity for long-term career success.
Exclusion of Undocumented Youth
Prior large-scale federal employment initiatives, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Summer Youth Employment Program, and Youth Opportunity Grants, have largely excluded undocumented youth. This general trend continues today on policies from the federal to local levels.
Disinvesting from and excluding undocumented youth puts them at risk. Undocumented youth experience higher rates of workplace exploitation, including wage theft and sexual harassment. Fear of reprisal from their employers, police, or immigration authorities results in vastly underreported abuse. A successful opportunity guarantee will depend on well-designed, strongly enforced labor protections for undocumented people. If employers can no longer exploit undocumented youth, they’ll have to deal with all young people equitably.
Undocumented young people are afforded access to public elementary and secondary education. In Plyler vs. Doe, the Supreme Court held that states cannot constitutionally deny students a free public education because of their immigration status. However, undocumented youth face barriers to pursuing college and earning income. For example, most states require undocumented immigrants to pay out-of-state tuition for public universities, and undocumented immigrants are even barred from enrolling in public colleges and universities in several states. Employment opportunities are limited even for undocumented youth with DACA due to the ongoing legal battle.
Bolstering Opportunities for Undocumented Youth
The Youth Opportunity Guarantee aims to guarantee three things to every young person aged 16 to 24 in the United States: high school or equivalent in preparation for college and career; a range of postsecondary options that help lead to labor market success; and quality career training, national service, or employment. The Youth Opportunity Guarantee also calls for ensuring that all young people receive resources and support in proportion to the barriers they face. For immigrant youth these might include, for example, trauma, gaps in academic preparation, or limited English language proficiency.
The guarantee advances ways in which undocumented young people can earn payment for their work under current law, such as entrepreneurship. Under current law, all immigrants can start a business using a Social Security Number or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), a tax processing number issued regardless of immigration status. Some seed funding targeted to undocumented entrepreneurs is currently available, but more is needed. For example, Immigrants Rising’s Entrepreneurship Fund provides grants to undocumented entrepreneurs, including but not limited to DACA recipients. America’s entrepreneurial engine will be strengthened by undocumented young people’s new ideas, shaped by their unique perspectives.
Beyond current law, a pathway to citizenship is necessary for many reasons — including to ensure that all careers are open to all immigrants, and to address current and looming workforce shortages.
Onwards to a Fully Inclusive Youth Opportunity Guarantee
Communities, states, businesses, youth leaders, and others are already working for equal opportunity for undocumented youth to excel and achieve their career dreams. What’s needed is a concerted effort to ensure that undocumented youth are included in any youth-guarantee legislation, that significant cross-sector collaboration occurs, and that systems of accountability are in place to guarantee that undocumented youth receive equitable access to the guarantee. With the blueprint outlined in The Youth Opportunity Guarantee: A Framework for Success and these considerations in mind, we can scale up a system that transforms education and career opportunities for undocumented youth.