They left their countries, traveled thousands of miles and boarded planes to Sacramento with one goal: to work.
But securing jobs is nearly impossible for the 36 Latin American migrants that arrived in early June. Like thousands seeking asylum in the United States, they are faced with a stark reality — federal law prevents them from working legally. In some cases, working can negatively affect them moving forward.
Each one will have to wait at least six months, if not longer, before gaining work authorization. Others may never gain legal permission, said Marcus Tang, an immigration attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
“It’s one of the paradoxes of our immigration system that so many people are coming here to work because they want to contribute to the community,” Tang said. “They want to improve their lives. But we have a federal system and immigration laws that simply make it unlawful for employers to hire them.”
Thirty one of the migrants remain in the Sacramento area. They are still receiving assistance from community organizations, including paid housing in a hotel, leftover food from pantries and legal services from a volunteer attorney.
Frustration and boredom has set in for some of the migrants.
Many believed they would have secured jobs by now and, without money, time outside their 190-square foot hotel rooms are limited to trips to the pantry and smoke breaks. Most hours are spent laying in their bed communicating with family and friends back in their home countries. For now, their yearning to begin independent lives is on hold.
“That’s the key — working,” said one 28-year-old Venezuelan migrant. “Once you start working, you can start your own life.”
The migrants continue to speak on the condition of anonymity, fearing violence and other reprisals for their presence in the capital region.
How to gain work authorization?
Each of the migrants now in Sacramento entered the U.S. seeking asylum, a designation that allows them to stay in the country. Their eligibility for asylum began with an interview at the border to determine “credible fear” of persecution or torture back in an individual’s native country.
The migrants passed these interviews, were given court dates and gained temporary access to the U.S. — the first step in a complicated, sometimes yearslong immigration process.
One of the main hurdles stems from the federal law regarding work authorization. The fastest way to gain permission is to file an asylum application. Six months, or 180 days, after submitting an application, individuals can be approved for work authorization.
Before 1996, asylum seekers could get a work permit immediately.
That changed with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, one of the steps taken by President Bill Clinton’s administration to deter asylum seekers from entering the country, according to UC Davis School of Law Dean Kevin Johnson.
At the time, the administration raised concerns about undocumented immigrants abusing the asylum system. Johnson called the six-month timeline an “arbitrary line,” intended to ensure the individuals are truly fearful of persecution.
“Some would say it’s really heartless and shows that we’re not that interested in opening the pathways for legitimate asylum seekers,” Johnson said.
Johnson added asylum is a discretionary form of relief, meaning the person can undermine their claim if they violate any laws, including working illegally. However, they can work as independent contractors lawfully. These jobs include recycling cans and selling produce at farmers markets.
The reality is the independent contractor positions are either rare or do not provide a sustainable wage.
Tang said attorneys can’t legally or ethically provide recommendations, but work authorization violations are typically enforced against an employer. That said, each individual should discuss their specific situation and possible consequences with an immigration attorney.
“For what it’s worth, a lot of people are working without authorization,” Tang said.
More than 1 million workers in California are undocumented, according to a University of California Merced report released in March 2022.
Longer than six months?
Government backlogs can sometimes lead to a longer wait for work authorization. Another group of eight Venezuelan migrants that arrived September in Sacramento only gained their work permits last month, said Autumn Gonzalez, an organizer with NorCal Resist.
“It’s a long and drawn out process,” she said.
The 180-day clock does not begin until an asylum application is submitted, which can take months. Most of the 31 recent migrants have not yet filed applications. Some likely won’t at all. A denied application can land an individual in immigration court, and eventual placement for deportation.
“By filing it, they can really put themselves at risk,” Tang said.
In the days following the migrants’ arrival, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation put out a call to help the migrants with the complicated immigration process.
The organization is part of a program called Family Unity, Education and Legal Network for Immigrants, or FUEL, sponsored by the city of Sacramento to support its immigrant community. It paired immigration attorneys with the migrants for a consultation and, in some cases, to help them change upcoming immigration hearings.
Many of the migrants had court appointments elsewhere in the country. One 40-year-old Venezuelan migrant has a court date in New York for early November. He did not know why. Tang said usually migrants provide an address of a family member or friend when entering the country, but in some rare cases border patrol chooses the location.
Attorneys will also help migrants gauge the strength of their asylum claim.
In the meantime, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation is trying to help migrants in other ways. It is among the organizations who signed a letter asking Attorney General Rob Bonta to provide all 36 migrants with a certification that would make them eligible to apply for a U visa, which is granted to undocumented immigrants that report serious crimes and cooperate with law enforcement.
Certifications are typically signed by law enforcement, showing the individual cooperated. The U Visa opens eligibility for public benefits such as Medi-Cal and food stamps.
Tang is “cautionally optimistic” the migrants will receive the certifications, saying Bonta’s office has responded it received the letter.
What waiting looks like
On a recent Friday in July, two of the migrants — both from Venezuela — were in their shared hotel room discussing what their futures might hold. The room was compact with two queen-sized beds, a 32-inch TV and a small dining table.
A wood-paneled kitchen took up one corner of the room, and nearby was a fridge packed with trays of leftover food. The two men said they were tired of the prepared food, hoping to soon make enough to buy fresh groceries.
One 28-year-old man laid in bed, dressed in white sweats and blue long-sleeved shirt. He scrolled through his phone. He said he dreams of one day owning his own immigration services business and investing in cryptocurrency. He owes money for his journey to the U.S.
His roommate, a 40-year-old man, was a few feet away drinking coffee while in jeans and a T-shirt. The older man said he hopes to one day return to his country and buy a home to live with his wife and children. He aspires for a career in welding, similar to his work in Venezuela.
But for now, both men will take any job available. They, like the other migrants, are asking almost anyone they come in contact with about work.
“Whatever job you know of, please just let me know … It’s hard man, sometimes it feels hopeless here,” said the 28-year-old man.
When the migrants do gain work eligibility, they can be contacted at [email protected]. The email is run by community members who volunteered to coordinate job opportunities.