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Is U.S. Missing Out On Skills of the Educated and Undocumented?

Karla Ayon, 36, has a degree in international trade

Karla Ayon, 36, has a degree in international trade. But because of her undocumented status, she hasn't been able to get a job in that field. She works as a housekeeper and makes about $400 a week. Griselda Nevarez

PHOENIX — What was supposed to be a year in the U.S. to learn English and advance her career became 11 years for Karla Ayon, a life without legal status and of doing domestic work, rather than using her international trade degree and business acumen.

Things changed for her when she met someone and had a child. The relationship didn't work out and she is now separated from her daughter's father. Although she is cleaning houses rather than practicing her profession, she is reluctant to separate her U.S. citizen 9-year-old daughter from her father.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that of the 3.6 million undocumented immigrants eligible for deportation relief under the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program, 10 percent have some college education and 11 percent have at least a bachelor's degree. But that program is stalled in a court battle.

As the nation nears decision day on who it wants to run the country for the next four years, the issue of how to deal with 11 million people here illegally and the U.S. citizen children of those immigrants has become a big part of whom they will choose. The GOP's Donald Trump has said he will end the program created by executive action, while Hillary Clinton supports it and would like to expand on it.

In the mix of the 11 million people here illegally are people like Ayon, who are educated, with skills that advocates argue could make them a contributor to the American economy if they were granted legal status, but that others say should be following the legal process to get to the United States.

In Mexico, 36-year-old Ayon earned a degree in international trade and held several local government jobs, including managing projects to bring investment and job creation to the town of Magdalena de Kino. In Arizona, because she is not here legally, she works as a housekeeper, earning lower wages and also paying fewer taxes.

"I know I have a lot to offer," Ayon said.

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President Barack Obama announced the DAPA program to benefit undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents two years ago, after Congress failed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. But it was blocked by a recent 4-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision, leaving Ayon to remain undocumented.

She currently makes about $400 a week cleaning houses, just enough to cover the bills and keep her and her daughter afloat.

Immigration advocates argue that the U.S. economy is losing out on additional contributions that Ayon and other undocumented immigrants could be making if they could stay and work legally. They say programs like DAPA would lead to jobs that match immigrants' skills, higher wages, greater economic productivity and higher tax revenues.

Recently, the Partnership For A New American Economy launched a campaign to better publicize the economic contributions of immigrants, hoping to influence the 2017 immigration debate, regardless of the outcome in the presidential elections.

In an economic report on Arizona, the group stated that immigrants in the state earned $21.4 billion or 13 percent of all income earned by Arizonans and with those earnings, foreign-born households contributed more than one of every eight dollars paid by Arizona residents in state and local tax revenues. The report did not discern income by immigrants here legally and those who are undocumented.

But opponents of DAPA and similar immigration relief programs argue that giving work authorization to undocumented immigrants would reward law breaking and result in more job competition for American workers.

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Ayon said she still remembers how excited she was when Obama announced the DAPA program in November 2014. The president also announced the expansion of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, which has provided deportation relief and work permits to more than 728,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

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She thought that the DAPA program would open doors for her just like DACA did for undocumented young immigrants like Angelica Gaona, who, thanks to the program, was able to become a teacher and pursue a master's degree in elementary education.

"I had so many ideas of what I wanted to do," Ayon said.

Those ideas included working for a company where she could get administrative work experience and eventually starting her own business. She also thought about going back to school to further her education.

But all those ideas came crumbling down when the Supreme Court announced its decision. In July, the Justice Department filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to rehear the case when it has a full nine-member court.

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Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the Partnership for New American Economy, said not allowing undocumented immigrants like Ayon to gain work authorization "is a huge loss to the American economy."

"If you look at all the economic data on what happens when you bring people out of the shadows and you make them play by the rules, compete equally and pay taxes, what you see, according to studies, is anywhere from an 8 to 16 percent income jump," he said.

"That's a huge gain for them," he continued, "but it's also a huge gain for everyone else because all of a sudden you have more people paying into taxes than you would otherwise."

But Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration enforcement and lower immigration levels, said that allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and work in the U.S. would not be good for American workers.

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He noted that about half of undocumented immigrants have less than a high school education. Once given work authorization, they would likely seek better-paying jobs that don't require high education levels. As a result, Camarota said, Americans with similar skill sets would face more job competition for the better-paying jobs that are available to the less educated.

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In the case of Ayon, Camarota said she would likely compete with American workers who have similar levels of education if she were given work authorization. He added that Ayon could find a better job in Mexico than the one she now has and, in doing so, benefit Mexico's economy.

"Mexico is losing out from a skilled worker like her," he said.

Ayon said she could go back to Mexico and seek a better job using her international trade degree, but doesn't want her daughter to grow up far away from her father. She also thinks there are better education and professional opportunities available for her daughter in the U.S. than in Mexico.

Even though Ayon had a good job in Mexico, it didn't pay well. She said finding a good job even with a degree has become more difficult in Mexico.

Veyom Bahl, managing director of Robin Hood, a New York-based organization working to alleviate poverty, said there are many undocumented immigrants, like Ayon, who qualify for DAPA and have been living in the U.S. for more than a decade and have no intention of leaving.

He said many of them will likely continue to work in under-the-table jobs and live in poverty as a result of the Supreme Court decision, and that's going to have significant ramifications on their children.

"They are much more likely to grow up in poverty as a result of barriers that their parents are going to continue to face," Bahl said.

A recent study by the Migration Policy Institute found that the DAPA program could improve the incomes and living standards for many of the potential recipients and their children, most of whom are U.S. born.

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According to the study, the annual income for a family with at least one potentially DAPA-eligible parent would increase by $3,000, or about 10 percent. That would lead to about 100,000 DAPA families rising out of poverty and no longer qualifying for welfare programs, such as the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. While undocumented parents don't qualify for such benefits, their children who are U.S. citizens are eligible.

Another study by the liberal Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, looked at the economic costs of delaying the implementation of the DAPA and the expanded DACA programs. It found that the U.S. loses out on $29.9 million in gross domestic product every day that the programs do not get implemented.

"We are definitely very saddened by the Supreme Court ruling," said Silva Mathema, a senior policy analyst on the immigration policy team at the Center for American Progress. "It means that status quo will remain and undocumented immigrants will have to continue to fear deportation and won't be able to fully contribute to the economy."

NBC Latino's Suzanne Gamboa contributed to this report.

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