‘What am I going to do ?’: Amid coronavirus pandemic, undocumented, DACA graduates face additional challenges entering job market

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Photo Credit: Rocky Higine | Daily Texan Staff

In May, Juan Valles, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, walked the virtual stage to receive his degree in biology. 

Valles said as a DACA recipient, he faced financial and political barriers different to those U.S. citizens face, and as a result had to work twice as hard to complete his college education.  

“It's just such a satisfying feeling knowing my parents and I, we kind of all put our hand into my education,” said Valles, a first-generation college student. “I was able to come out on the other side and it was just a feeling like nothing else.”

At around 14 years old, Valles became a DACA recipient. DACA provides young immigrants like Valles with temporary safety from deportation and authorization to work and must be renewed every two years. 

It wasn’t until he got older that Valles began to understand what his status meant for him and the financial barriers that came along with it. 

“My parents kind of hid that from me,” Valles said. “I think they (were) just protecting me so I wouldn't feel different from the other kids.”

During the summer, Valles had an internship he hoped would turn into a full-time job.Then, the program was canceled due to the pandemic. 

There are 2.6 million Texans who applied for unemployment relief since mid-March. Because of Valles’ status, he isn’t one of them. Though undocumented people make up 8.2% of the Texas workforce, they aren’t able to apply for unemployment under the Texas Employment Compensation Act

“Not having the benefit of filing for unemployment definitely took a toll for the first, like, month of the pandemic,” Valles said. “And that's just something not a lot of people had to deal (with). They have the government to kind of fall back on. They have that option there if they need it.” 

On top of that, only United States citizens and legal residents were eligible to receive aid from stimulus checks under the coronavirus relief bill.  

Valles is continuing to fill out job applications while working as a store clerk. Meanwhile, he said the insecurity of his status as a DACA recipient is always in the back of his mind, especially as the President Donald Trump’s administration has worked to end the program. 

On June 18, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Trump’s attempt to end DACA — but the Supreme Court’s ruling doesn’t protect everyone. Recent graduate Jesús, who asked the Texan not to use his last name because he is undocumented, said the possibility he or his family could face deportation is always a worry for him.

“Being undocumented and thinking about the future was always like, ‘Oh, what am I going to do? Like people have papers and I don't,’” Jesús said. “Am I gonna get a call, saying someone from my family is going to be deported? It's always a constant fear.”

Jesús arrived in the U.S. after DACA was enacted, meaning he was not eligible to apply and has no legal pathway to citizenship. In order to pay taxes, he and his family use an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number rather than a Social Security number. 

When Jesús returned to his hometown after campus closed due to COVID-19 concerns, he got a job making ice cream, but was laid off after two weeks because of coronavirus-related restrictions.

Now, Jesús is going to pursue his Ph.D. in the fall and said his enrollment has given him a sense of security. 

“Given my status, I would have a lot of insecurity looking for a job because I don't have a Social Security number I could work with,” Jesús said. “On the bright side, I am going to (have) secure housing for five years. I'm going to have health care for five years. I’m going to be having basic human rights for my labor.” 

Like Jesús and Valles, Nicolás Requena Torre, a DACA recipient, is ineligible for unemployment benefits and stimulus checks.

At the start of the pandemic, Requena Torre’s parents were hit economically by their lack of access to public assistance. Since then, their financial state has improved. 

Requena Torre said he had a job at the UT Swim Center, and they continued to pay him after campus closed. He began applying for jobs after graduating, but hasn’t had any luck so far. 

Aside from his economic situation, he said he continues to worry about the possibility of the government ending the DACA program.

“DACA is not a seat at the table, but it's kind of like a spot in the room,” Requena Torre said. “Many times I think people, especially younger people that are DACA recipients or who have immigrant lineage, feel as though they're not worth enough or not valued enough.”

He said thankfully, he still has one year left to refile for DACA, which costs at least $495 in application fees.

Although COVID-19, the political climate and the uncertain job market all pose concerns for undocumented individuals, Valles said he is still proud he graduated. 

Now Valles only hopes for a better future for himself and other undocumented people. 

“Texas is my home,” Valles said. “The United States is my home, but it doesn't feel like that. I feel like a stranger here, like a stranger in my own home. I'm hopeful that I'm able to have the same things my friends do, just have that sense of stability and that sense of normalcy, so I'm not considered an outsider anymore.”