By Salvador Rodriguez
October 27, 2016
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After moving to the U.S. from Mexico to treat his polio, Jorge Orrantia came across a computer at his high school. As a person who couldn't do physical jobs, he realized that learning computer skills might open the door to opportunity.
"That was a big equalizer," Orrantia said.
He taught himself how to be a software developer and earned a master's degree in computer science. He is someone who can make websites, mobile apps, and more. The entire journey has taken him nearly 30 years, and yet, Orrantia, 47, has never been able to work for a U.S. tech company.
He is an undocumented immigrant.
"Even though I have this high-tech education, I don't have the freedom to go and apply wherever my services can be used," said Orrantia, his voice shaking.
Orrantia is one of countless immigrants with either the skills or ambition to work for tech companies, but whose undocumented status prevents the easy attainment of jobs. It's not clear how many undocumented immigrants work in tech, but often, they must set up private companies and work as contractors if they want to earn a paycheck from their tech skills.
There is, however, a small population of undocumented people who are able to legally work for American companies through the Obama Administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, otherwise known as DACA. This program, enacted in 2012, makes it possible for undocumented people who arrived in the U.S. before they were 16 to get things like social security numbers, driver's licenses and work permits without fear of deportation. The federal government has said there are approximately 728,000 DACA recipients.
With the upcoming presidential election, though, the fate of these individuals hangs in the balance. The polar opposite immigration policies of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump could give undocumented tech workers an easier pathway toward working for the likes of Google, Apple or Facebook–or they could be deported from the U.S. all together.
If Clinton wins, undocumented tech workers would stand to see a push for immigration reform legislation during the first female president's first 100 days in office. That is the vow Clinton has taken, saying she will put together a plan that would give undocumented individuals a pathway to citizenship. Comprehensive reform, of course, would also require passage by the Senate and House of Representatives. In the meantime, Clinton has committed to keeping DACA in place.
"You've had President Bush and President Obama, Republicans and Democrats, pledge to pass immigration reform. They both came up short. What we've never had is a president who said 'From day one of my presidency, I'm going to make this a top priority," said Todd Schulte, executive director of FWD.us, a nonprofit organization that advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and was founded by several tech leaders, including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.
That's a big deal for individuals like Dalia Icedo, a 22-year-old student at San Jose State University. Icedo came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was less than a year old, and she has grown up in California. Now she is studying to one day be a user experience and user interface designer in tech. Icedo will be able to graduate from college in two years without fear of deportation, due to DACA. After that, she will have to re-apply for DACA, assuming the program still exists, and there are no guarantees she will receive that status again.
"I don't want to live in fear of having DACA revoked and not knowing how I'll be able to work. I'm one of the lucky ones that has it, but even then it's such a temporary solution," Icedo said. "It's only a Band-Aid to a much bigger problem."
With Trump, the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants could face deportation and have little chance of working in Silicon Valley. Trump's immigration policy includes immediately terminating DACA and tripling the amount of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to enforce all immigration laws.
There are several groups, such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and Californians for Population Stabilization, that support putting an end to DACA. "It is a scheme by which the executive branch bypasses the legislative branch and grants amnesty to people," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for FAIR. "But that's not how this country is supposed to be governed."
Additionally, these groups say the tech industry has no need to hire undocumented workers for the sake of increasing diversity. There is local, documented talent from which tech can recruit, especially after recent and upcoming layoffs from the likes of HP, Dell, and Twitter.
"I'm not sure how either an American or a legal immigrant or a DACA recipient would find his or her way into the tech market given those terrible employment conditions," said Joe Guzzardi, national media director of Californians for Population Stabilization.
Other groups, however, have said the tech industry is suffering from a shortage of workers. Earlier this year, ACT | The App Association released an interactive map showing more than 223,000 unfilled software engineering jobs around the U.S.
It's unclear just how many of the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. have the skills necessary to work in the tech industry, but lack of work permits for undocumented immigrants is a barrier keeping tech from hiring more Hispanics, said Justino Mora, a DACA beneficiary and co-founder of UndocuMedia, an organization of immigrant rights advocates.
"It's a huge impediment," Mora said.
For Silicon Valley tech companies, having the ability to hire from the pool of 11 million undocumented immigrants would help fill those vacant jobs. Some tech entrepreneurs, like Steve Case, who has long argued for pro-immigration policies, have come out in support of Clinton. It would also stand to help tech companies increase their representation of Hispanic employees, a commitment many tech companies made in 2014.
"There's so much talent out there, and so many educated people who haven't been able to get citizenship and don't have a path to get citizenship. It sucks for both sides," Icedo said. "Companies are missing out on really powerful candidates."
Among those individuals are people like 28-year-old David from Colombia, a software engineer who has been working in the Bay Area since coming to the U.S. four years ago. Due to his undocumented status, David said he set up a limited liability company based out of Wyoming in order to work as a contractor for startups in Silicon Valley. This allows companies to pay his company for his work without putting them in jeopardy for hiring an undocumented person. It's a setup he knows is used by several other people who are in situations similar to his own, said David, who requested his last name be omitted as he is not a DACA beneficiary and does not wish to be deported.
Although this situation provides him the means to live happily in the U.S., David said there are drawbacks, such as the lack of perks or benefits enjoyed by other tech workers. The worst part of the situation, however, is that he does not get to work for the tech companies he admires, David said. In the past, his status has cost him opportunities to work with Slack and GoPro among others, David said.
"Most of the time I forget that I'm undocumented," David said. "It just comes now and then when I'm trying to get a job, and it gets in the way."
As Americans cast their votes, they could be deciding the fates of undocumented tech workers, potentially giving them a path to legally working in tech or deporting them. With Clinton leading in many polls, there is an excited yet cautious hope expressed by individuals like Orrantia, Icedo, and David that perhaps finally they may be able to fulfill their tech dreams.
"I've been waiting almost 30 years," Orrantia said. "I'm ready. I'm ready to contribute."