Undocumented teens cannot apply to New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), which supporters say offers a number of educational and economic benefits. “For some, it’s as simple as a summer job that provides them with extra income but for others, it can be the start of a lifelong career.”

Mayoral Photography Office/Ed Reed

Mayor Eric Adams announcing plans to expand SYEP at a press briefing in February.

This article was originally published in Spanish. Translated by Daniel Parra. Lea la versión en español aquí.

New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) received an expansion this year to offer the largest number of employment opportunities in the program’s history, from about 75,000 slots in 2021 to 100,000 this summer. Yet the program continues to exclude undocumented youth.

SYEP is the largest employment program for young people between 14 and 24 years of age in the country, and has two primary requirements: participants must reside in one of the five boroughs and be legally authorized to work in the U.S, the latter being precisely the requirement that leaves out undocumented youth.

“Unfortunately, federal regulations prevent youth who are undocumented from taking part in the Summer Youth Employment Program,” said Mark Zustovich, spokesperson for the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), the agency overseeing the SYEP. “However, the Adams administration is proactively investing in unique programs to address those disparities and, to the extent possible, help level the playing field for undocumented youth.”

Zustovich did not immediately elaborate on what unique programs to address those disparities are being discussed, but several proposals have been on the table for years. For example, in 2019, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams introduced a bill to create an expanded, parallel program to SYEP so that all youth, regardless of immigration status, could participate. It ultimately did not pass.

In consversation with City Limits, Williams said he has revived the push this year to create such a parallel program to offer an “educational enrichment opportunity” to undocumented youth. His proposal would provide a stipend instead of a paycheck, and he wants it included in the city budget.

The SYEP program is funded largely through city, state and federal dollars, and immigrant advocates do not think there are any restrictions by funders stipulating that undocumented youth cannot apply. DYCD said that regardless of funding sources, federal guidelines require participants to be legally authorized to work in the U.S. and able to present their I-9 documentation, given that SYEP is an employment program and youth are paid a wage.

For Monia Salam, program director for work-based learning at ExpandED schools and a longtime advocate for SYEP’s expansion, the biggest barrier is that young people without social security numbers cannot be paid more than $599. Anything over that amount requires filing work authorization paperwork with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

“This is the number two question that most people come to ask about,” explained Vanessa Luna, co-founder of ImmsSchools, who has also been calling for the inclusion of undocumented students for years. “The number one question is: can I go to college? The number two is: can I get into SYEP?”

Although the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development says the Eric Adams administration is looking to create unique programs to address disparities between documented and undocumented youth, it’s not clear exactly how many youths are left out of SYEP year after year.

All estimates have some flaws. For example, the city’s Department of Youth and Community Development offered an estimate based on the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs reports, sying approximately 42,000 young people aged 18-24 are undocumented, plus another 45,000 under the age of 17. The Department of Education didn’t offer an estimate and immigrant advocacy organizations do not have a clear figure either.

Luna said that one approximate answer was provided by the NYS DREAM Act, which estimated that 4,500 undocumented students were graduating each year from New York State high schools in 2019. But this figure includes students from all over the state, not only from the city, and it leaves out young people who are still in high school, i.e., those ages 14 and older.

The Center for Migration Studies says that 16,491 undocumented youth between the ages of 18 and 20 lived in the city in 2019 and about 25,257 between the ages of 21 and 24, totaling 41,748 youth—but this number does not count those between the ages of 14 and 17. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there were 77,000 undocumented youth (ages 16 to 24) in New York City in 2019; but again, these estimates do not include youth between 14 and 15.

The public advocate, for his part, said the figure his office referenced in his 2019 legislation—that in his view would still apply—would be about 38,000 students eligible for SYEP who are unable to apply because of their immigration status.

Councilmember Shahana Hanif, who is the chair of the immigration committee, said she is fighting both to expand SYEP to undocumented youth and to create alternative models that provide the same learning experiences and compensation.

“It is so critical that we find a pathway for undocumented youth to be a part of SYEP. SYEP helps young people not only grow more connected to our City but is also a tool of economic empowerment,” Hanif said.

“For some, it’s as simple as a summer job that provides them with extra income but for others, it can be the start of a lifelong career,” she added.

J.T Falcone, a senior policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses—which has also been calling for a more inclusive expansion of the program for years—said there is a laundry list of research on the benefits of being part of the SYEP program.

For example, SYEP participants showed positive impacts on academic achievement and retention in the year following participation; youth earnings increased and these gains are cumulative. Youth also reduced their likelihood of engaging in violent crime over a 17-month period following participation, reduced the likelihood of mortality, and their work strengthened communities.

Undocumented youth have been cut off from these benefits for years, advocates say.

“Work-based learning opportunities like SYEP are especially important for English Language Learners (ELLs), but many immigrant students and students learning English have historically been left out of these programs, due to documentation barriers and a lack of language supports,” said Juliet Eisenstein, Advocates For Children’s Postsecondary Readiness Project attorney.

READ MORE: NYC English Language Learners Still Struggling Two Years Into Pandemic

The expansion has not only the support of advocates but of a renewed group of councilmembers who see the restructuring to a universally accessible program as paramount. The chairs of the Immigration, Education, and Youth Services Committees spoke in favor of the inclusion of undocumented youth into SYEP.

Councilmember Rita Joseph, chair of the city’s education committee, said, “the fact that undocumented young people can’t participate in the SYEP is an absolute travesty. Every child regardless of their immigration status, should be given the opportunity to gain meaningful skills outside of school.” Althea Stevens, chair of the Committee on Youth Services, said that “the root of the issue is on a federal level, as we need serious immigration reform. As this matter is bigger than the Summer Youth Employment Program, support and solutions are required to efficiently serve the immigration population.”

Some organizations have proposed that the city develop the alternative program through grassroots and community-based organizations to ensure universal access, but this would be a total restructuring from how SYEP is run, and not an easy task. For the moment, DYCD said it was considering a pilot learning opportunity program that includes small stipends and is open to all students, including undocumented students, but did not elaborate on details.

“We might need to be innovative in finding a solution, but all we need is the political will to get this done,” asked Councilwoman Hanif.