DACA recipient Peter Isais fired up his weathered Honda Civic on a recent afternoon and headed out to his job as a mobile cell phone repairman.
"I have like three repairs today — the first one’s going to be in Irvine," said Isais, 34, as he motored away from his home in Santa Ana. "I go out to people’s houses or meet them at Starbucks and repair their phones. That’s one of my jobs."
He also works for the county as an aide for special needs students and he works in local hospitals as a medical technician in training. He's learning how to run brain scans known as EEGs that are used to diagnose disorders like epilepsy and seizures.
Isais is the kind of young immigrant whom advocates hold up when urging either an extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program known s DACA or an alternative to resolve their status. DACA participants came to the country without authorization as young children. Some lived in the U.S. for decades under threat of possible deportation until President Obama created DACA, which granted the young immigrants temporary deportation protection and work permits.
Last year, President Trump rescinded DACA while encouraging Congress to come up with a solution to the DACA recipients' circumstances. He attached controversial conditions to his support, however, calling for funding for a border wall, for example.
So far, there's been no resolution of the issue and the time is ticking on DACA, which will expire in March, barring congressional action.
Most of the 200,000 or so young immigrants living in California with DACA benefits are employed, either full or part-time. Their DACA work permits will begin expiring when the program ends in spring and they will again face the possibility of deportation.
FUTURE WITHOUT LEGAL PERMITS
Isais has lived in Orange County almost his whole life, but he was born in Tecate, just across the Mexican border.
Isais is lucky in that he recently renewed his two-year DACA work permit, so it doesn’t expire until 2019. By then, he hopes to be employed full time at a hospital. But he fears it may not last long.
“The thing that kind of worries me a lot is the fact that … when I graduate a year down the road, I may not be able to work with that permit any more," he said.
He’s likely right, said Scott Bettridge, a corporate immigration attorney. Some DACA recipients may be able to get by working as freelancers if they lose their work permits, he said. But most who work for companies or institutions are likely to lose those jobs.
“Employers don’t want to hurt their DACA employees, but I think they need to consider their own situation," Bettridge said. "If any work authorization that is provided is expiring, and they know that, I think they are subject to knowingly employing an undocumented worker.” That is against the law.
Bettridge said even re-hiring a former DACA worker as an independent contractor is legally dicey because the employer is aware of the worker's immigration status.
While some employers may take chances, the likeliest scenario is layoffs, said Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis.
“The immediate effect is that those jobs will be empty, and we will lose the productivity, the wages, the income," Peri said.
Some companies may try to replace these workers, Peri said. While the number of DACA recipients is relatively small, he said, economic ripples might be felt in regions where they are concentrated, as they are in Southern California.
Many DACA work permit holders who lose their jobs may have to settle for lower-paying work in jobs that don't fully use their education or skills.
“They are going to be thrown back in the group of undocumented, which have had very limited options," Peri said. "So they may find employment in some restaurant as a waiter, without much of a formal contract, but they won’t find a job at a dentist office as a technician.”
Opponents of DACA say they’re against allowing DACA recipients to continue to work legally, even if they do have education or skills. Some argue their jobs should be filled by Americans and others in the country legally.
John Miano with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C. think tank that advocates for stricter immigration rules, said even if Congress devises a solution to the DACA dilemma, this will do nothing to discourage illegal immigration.
“If there were some rational approach to immigration reform, there would be some account for dealing with the people like that who are here in that situation," Miano said, referring to the young immigrants. "But I think we also have to deal with the problem of cutting off the flow behind them.”
PONDERING HIS FUTURE
Arriving at his destination in Irvine, Isais parked on a manicured street, grabbed his bag of tools and headed for his assigned address. A young woman opened the door.
She walked Isais to a table where she displayed her phone with its badly cracked screen. It fell out of the pocket of her medical scrubs, she explained.
"Do you work in a hospital?" he asked, perking up. She told him she's a medical student, and Isais excitedly told her about his own training.
"I just did a rotation at UCLA ... it's awesome," he said.
Isais wrapped up the repair job, wished his customer good luck in her studies, and got the same from her. Then he was off to his next repair appointment, this time in Fullerton.
In his car again, Isais described his years as an unauthorized immigrant working odd jobs where employers often looked the other way. But once he knew he could work legally, he attended community college and earned an associate degree. He then decided to specialize in brain scans, and is working on a second associate degree in neurodiagnostic technology.
Now he worries his training may go to waste without a valid work permit.
“If the hospital says, 'Hey, your work permit that you have — you know, it’s expiring next month. We need you to show proof of renewal,' ... I’m guessing they are just going to say, 'Well, see you later,'" he said with a nervous laugh.
Isais is in line for a green card. His oldest brother, a U.S. citizen, sponsored him for legal residency back in 2001. But getting one takes at least 20 years, which means he likely won't have it by the time his DACA work permit expires.
If all else fails, Isais said, he does know how to fix cell phones, and he supposes he could work for himself. "So I could actually order parts and do the repairs on my own, if I wanted."
But after years in the classroom and now training in hospitals, he said he would much rather be working on brain scans — and helping to fix not phones but people.