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New Jersey will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for professional licenses

The law represents a significant barrier lifted for thousands of undocumented immigrants—particularly during the pandemic. New Jersey is the first state on the East Coast to take the step.

New Jersey will allow undocumented immigrants to apply for professional licenses
[Images: Kathleen Gail/iStock, whilerests/iStock]

An array of professional opportunities that were previously out of reach has now become possible for thousands of undocumented immigrants in New Jersey, after Governor Phil Murphy repealed restrictions that barred those individuals from obtaining occupational and professional licenses, necessary to enter a large number of career fields.

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Murphy signed the bill Tuesday, after it was passed in the Democratic state legislature in the summer, creating new professional avenues for some of the approximately 500,000 undocumented immigrants who live in the Garden State. “New Jersey is stronger when everyone is given the opportunity to contribute and everyone is given a chance to live their American Dream,” Murphy stated in the official press release. “This law sends a simple, powerful message that immigration status can no longer be used as an excuse to discriminate among equally educated, trained, and qualified individuals.”

States have to actively pass legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to acquire these licenses. A 1996 federal law signed by President Clinton, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which tightened access to the welfare system, specifically included a provision that would withhold state licenses from those considered unlawfully present in the U.S., unless states passed laws to the contrary.

So far, California is the only other state to have passed a blanket law to aid all undocumented immigrants. Other states have permitted DACA recipients to apply for licenses in certain professional fields. In Florida and Illinois they can practice law; they can practice nursing in Arkansas. New Jersey is the first East Coast state to pass a more sweeping law.

On a Facebook Live streamed event held before the historic signing, Murphy said: “This eliminates a roadblock. There have been many that have been put up against our immigrant families and communities.” Licensing varies by state, but nearly one in four jobs nationally require professional or occupational licenses. In New Jersey, roles that require licenses include social workers, tradesmen such as plumbers and electricians, barbers, beauticians, and healthcare workers.

Estrella Rivera, 20, a biology student at Rutgers who was born in El Salvador, was a guest on the Facebook Live event with Murphy and other lawmakers. “I was denied because I didn’t have a Social Security number,” she said, referring to being unable to volunteer at some hospitals. “The reality is this: My immigration status has meant that doors have closed for me.”

Even before the pandemic, in 2018, 2 million immigrants were underemployed in low-skilled jobs instead of the field of work they were in before they came to the country. And now there’s extra demand for healthcare workers in particular, and a need for people to find work generally to overcome severe financial difficulties. “This bill is a good idea no matter what,” Murphy said on the Facebook Live event. “But God knows, the strain and stress on our medical and health profession made its timing and its urgency more so.”

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Newly authorized individuals would still need to meet professional qualifications to obtain licenses. But Murphy emphasized the bill’s potential to economically and culturally enrich the entire state. “This is smart and good for New Jersey,” he said. “For all 9 million of us who call this great state our home.”

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