One of the Most Diverse Talent Pools in America, Untapped

From Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder, to Dow Chemical’s CEO, Andrew Liveris, almost every single panelist at the recent 2015 Forbes Reinventing America Summit declared immigration a key asset to growing America’s economy and an often undervalued resource. Governor Snyder put it simply: “We have a broken immigration system; it’s dumb.”  I was thrilled that so many government and business leaders recognized the correlation between immigration and our nation’s competitive advantage.

However, I was left wondering why no one talked about the amazing pool of diverse talent among students eligible for Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The federal program - now in its third year, with an expansion currently being debated in federal court - allows young people who arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16 to work legally, be exempt from deportation, and is renewable every two years at the applicant’s expense. If companies are serious about talent and diversity, they must recruit DACA recipients - or continue to overlook some of the nation’s most brilliant minds.

Stories of undocumented young people achieving great success are becoming increasingly common. News of the undocumented twin high school valedictorians who now attend the University of Notre Dame, the Mexican immigrant who co-founded one of the largest drone firms in the world, and the first undocumented medical student at U.C. San Francisco illustrate both the intellect and drive that is brought to the table by young undocumented Americans.

U.S. businesses often complain that more H1-B visas are needed (non-immigrant visas designed to allow employers to recruit and employ foreign professionals in specialty occupations). Expansion of that program is necessary, but so is tapping into the DACA talent pool, represented by young people who have been in our education system most of their lives and call this America home.

Every year, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school. Despite huge barriers, many DACA students go on to graduate college successfully, but later find that corporate recruitment policies throw down the gauntlet on their admissions process. These job seekers - who have a social security number and work authorization - must answer ambiguous or impossible immigration status questions: U.S. citizen, resident, or needs employment sponsorship. DACA students do not fall under any of these strict categories and are left with minimal options to explain their unique status while often competing with hundreds of other applicants.

Corporate HR departments are not up to date on how to include DACA job applicants or are many times not even familiar with the program, despite its prominence in the national news for three years. In July 2014, Ruben Juarez, a Mexican-born DACA recipient, sued Northwestern Mutual after the company reneged his employment offer because he was not a U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident. A judge recently denied Northwestern Mutual’s motion to dismiss the case, and while the case has since been privately settled, the ruling sends a strong message that companies cannot pick and choose which work authorizations they will honor.

The result of these practices? Recruiting programs turn away viable candidates, and both individual companies and the U.S. economy lose out.

The DACAmented, who above all odds graduated from college often with no government financial aid or family support, also lose out on professional development opportunities offered to their peers. For example, some of the top career and mentorship programs for minority students such as Sponsors for Educational Opportunities, INROADS, and CODE2040, do not make it clear if DACA students qualify for any of their programs. Even if they are welcome, some of these program’s websites make it uniquely difficult for DACA beneficiaries to get basic information and apply. When I called the office of one of the programs and asked if DACA students qualify, the answer was: “What is DACA?”

Like many DACA students, I did not have the benefit of parents who knew the college application process or how to navigate entry into the corporate world. Yet, while undocumented, I built a successful career on Wall Street, becoming a vice president at Goldman Sachs by 27. My success would not have been possible without the guidance provided by career development programs.  The mock interviews, Dress for Success workshops, Dale Carnegie training and mentors that these programs offered were instrumental in my career success.   

Despite the many obstacles the DACAmented face - being turned away from higher education, financial issues, and the stigma of being undocumented- they maintain a drive to succeed and are some of our country’s most talented young people. What company wouldn’t want this type of employee?