Opportunities, challenges await immigrant parents eligible for Obama’s deferred action

The turnout at Highline College at an informational event earlier this month. (Photo courtesy of NWIRP)
The turnout at Highline College at an informational event earlier this month. (Photo courtesy of NWIRP)

Ray Corona works as a student recruiter at University of Washington (UW) Bothell, a job he knows he couldn’t have gotten if not for a policy change the Obama administration initiated two years ago granting work permits and a reprieve from deportation for hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants.

But Corona, 23, who is hoping for a career in the corporate sector, worries the limitations of his deferred action status puts him at a competitive disadvantage.

“These work permits have an expiration date to them,” said Corona, who also heads the Washington Dream Act Coalition. “It’s an obvious and clear thing for an employer who may start questioning the longevity of someone they are about to make an major investment in.”

These same concerns are likely to confront some of the nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants eligible for work authorization and other benefits through an expansion of the deferred action program the president announced last month.

Under that plan, immigrant parents of U.S citizens and green card holders — about 70,000 people across Washington state — would be granted a renewable, three-year work permit and a social security number as well as protection from deportation.

They must pass a criminal background check and must have been physically present and continuously living in the U.S. since January 2010. Their qualifying child must have been born on or before the date of the president’s announcement, Nov. 20, 2014.

They can begin applying in May.

Applying for deferred action will require these parents to exit the shadows and make themselves known to the government. In addition to the work permit that accompanies deferred action, recipients also get a social security number, valid as long as the work permit is, that recipients can use to open bank accounts and apply for credit cards.

Zaida Rivera, staff attorney for Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), said one question many applicants often ask is whether they can be deported if they are not approved for deferred action.

For those applicants who have been denied, that hasn’t happened, she said.

“This program offers protection and work authorization; it allows people to live without fear of deportation and being separated from their families,” Rivera said. “If you are eligible, we suggest you apply.”

To respond to questions parents will undoubtedly have, NWIRP has been hosting a series of community presentations across the state, including one event scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall. 

The granting of work permits to undocumented immigrants is not new. It’s common for asylum seekers or those marked for deportation, but out on bond, to be granted employment authorization.

Ray Corona, UW Bothell recruiter and "DREAM"-er. (Courtesy of Ray Corona)
Ray Corona, UW Bothell recruiter and “DREAM”-er. (Courtesy of Ray Corona)

The millions of parents who will qualify for work permits under this expansion could possibly represent, in sheer numbers, the largest granting of work authorization in history.

But while there are clear benefits to being able to work legally and above board, there may also be limitations.

Corona said many of the large employers he’d like to work for include a series of questions on job applications that would easily reveal an applicant’s employment eligibility even before that person reached the interview stage.

One question: “Do you now or will you in the future need employment sponsorship?” Employment sponsorship refers to a federal process through which employers petition the federal government for an employment visas on behalf of a foreign worker.

Given the political uncertainty of deferred action, Corona said, the answer to that question can be tricky for someone with a work permit that expires in three years.

“As I look into the future at where I can go from this entry-level  position at the UW, I’d really like to get into the corporate sector, he said.

“When I look at applications that ask about employment sponsorship, while at the moment I don’t need it, this is such a temporary thing, I know I may in the future,” Corona said. “Which box I check just adds another layer.”

Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the Council for Global Immigration, an affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management, said the question regarding employment sponsorship on job applications is not one that has been raised in the context of deferred action.

Even so, she said, employers may not, by law, discriminate against a person with limited work authorization.

“Employers should not be asking for proof of work authorization before they extend an offer of employment,” she said.

Shotwell said a more pressing issue exists for undocumented workers who might step forward now to tell employers they are eligible for the program even before the application window opens.

That not only exposes them as illegally employed, but leaves the employer in an awkward position, she said.

“Immigration lawyers are advising us that person would need to be terminated,” she said.

Corona says this is a “Catch-22.” Many workers who have been with the same employer for several years may need information from that employer to help prove their continuous residency in the U.S as part of their application for deferred action.

Born in Mexico city, Corona came to the U.S when he was nine and graduated last year with a degree in society, ethics and human behavior from UW Bothell.

He was the first in his family to graduate from high school and attend college and often shares his academic story with the high school students he’s trying to recruit – student from all different backgrounds.

For the last five years he has been active in pushing for immigration changes that would benefit, not just young undocumented folks here in Washington and across the country, but their parents as well.

But the push for permanent, legal status needs to continue, he said.

“I keep hearing students and others getting complacent with this idea of deferred action,” he said. “I don’t want to plan my life out in three-year intervals.”