New York Is Next State to Open Professional Licensing to Undocumented Students. Will Others Follow?

Posted By Monica Harvin on June 21, 2016 at 1:50 pm
New York Is Next State to Open Professional Licensing to Undocumented Students. Will Others Follow?

The state of New York moved forward at the end of May on its decision to allow some undocumented immigrants access to professional licenses for more than 50 professions, including teachers, physicians, nurses, engineers and many other high-demand areas. New York’s decision follows similar actions taken by California with SB 1159 and, to a more limited degree, Nevada’s AB 27 and Florida’s HB 755.

The decision in New York applies to immigrants with DACA-protected status, those under 31 who were brought to the U.S. by their parents. With the pending Supreme Court decision on the legality of President Obama’s executive orders to expand DACA and extend protections to these young people’s families through DAPA, an increase in the number of immigrants eligible for professional licensing may be possible as well.

Taking advantage of educational investment in undocumented students

“New York has invested educational resources in these students, and it made no sense not to get the return on the investment,” said Natalie Gomez-Velez, director of the City University of New York law school’s Center on Latino/a Rights and Equality, to the New York Times.

This prior educational investment is at the crux of many arguments in support of expanding access to higher education and professional licensing to undocumented students educated in public schools across the country. In 2012-2013, it cost an estimated $12,296 per year to educate a public school student, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Maintaining the historical rate of cost increase over time, that amounts to $164,732.47 invested in a student who attended K-12 in the United States.

With more states offering in-state tuition and access to financial aid as well as a growing number of private scholarship opportunities for undocumented students, access to higher education generally appears to be growing. But there’s a catch for many undocumented college graduates: being able to legally get a job once out of college. Students with DACA are permitted to legally reside and work in the United States; however, in most states, they’re excluded from being able to obtain the professional licensing they need to work in many fields.

Careers pursued often require professional licensing

What’s more, Lynne Martin, executive director of Students Rising Above, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that focuses on helping low-income, first-generation students, recently shared with GoodCall that the first-generation college students that her organization works with generally aspire to become teachers, doctors, lawyers and other professions most traditionally associated with earning a college degree. These professions require professional licensing to practice.

Undocumented students who are able to overcome the many challenges to attending and graduating from college thus face another hurdle upon graduation, that of not being able to obtain the license they need to become the teacher, lawyer or doctor they believed going to college would help them become.

Carmen M. Cusack, J.D., Ph.D., author and editor of the Journal  of Law and Social Deviance, argues that the current moves by New York and other states to allow immigrants with DACA to become licensed to practice law, medicine or teach, for example, have a precedent with the U.S. preferential treatment of Cubans, where these groups were provided with assistance in gaining teaching licenses and other professional licenses, in addition to other social safety net benefits.

Though in contrast to these earlier programs, granting undocumented graduates access to professional licensing today greatly diverges from these earlier programs in that these students are not benefiting from special job placement programs, language assistance or help in transitioning into professional careers but rather simply being granted permission to put their US-accredited college degrees to work.

Filling national job demand and contributing to the U.S. economy

What’s more, many of the areas where professional licenses are required include high-paying and/or high-demand jobs. Teaching, for example, is an area with critical shortages and with great potential for undocumented students to contribute to meeting national demand. Other jobs in STEM areas such as the medical field or engineering represent high-earning positions where there is also not enough current national supply of college graduates entering these fields.

Not only could these college graduates contribute to filling needed jobs, allowing some to pursue careers in higher-paying fields such as becoming a dentist or architect also would mean more U.S. tax dollars. According to Payscale, the median salary for an entry level dentist is $114,977. According to the 2016 taxable income bracket and rates, that’s an estimated $32,000 in gross federal tax contributions. A recent Forbes article analyzing IRS data finds that Americans earning over $100,000 account for 79.5% of federal income taxes paid in 2014.

Compare this to a job making $50,000 a year where gross contributions would amount to about $12,500 a year, or even worse, having to take a job that doesn’t require a college degree earning on average $30,000 a year and contributing $4,500 annually before tax deductions and credits.

High-achieving undocumented scholars with more to give the nation

Golden Door Scholars is a national scholarship program for undocumented students, where the average high school GPA for 2015 scholars was a 4.7. These are students who’ll have a lot of talent to offer the nation as a whole when they graduate and become professionals.

A recent article in The Hill highlights this even further in telling the story of Texas high school valedictorians Mayte Lara Ibarra and Larissa Martinez, both undocumented. Coincidentally, Martinez is heading to Yale to pursue a medical degree. Though without more legislation like has happened in New York and California, it’s likely that her job prospects in the medical field and capacity to contribute to the U.S. could be limited come graduation time.

In a Q&A session with GoodCall, Kacey Grantham, director of Golden Doors Scholars, explains her organization addresses the issue of professional licensing with its scholars and provides guidance support for choosing majors and navigating the complexities of professional licensing.

GoodCall: How do you go about advising students on the options that are open to them after graduation, particularly in such a continuously changing professional landscape across different states?

Grantham: We periodically give students information for the states they’re in, but we also encourage them to take charge of their careers and stay informed. We recommend that they periodically call the licensing boards for the careers they’re interested in to check whether or not DACA students can be licensed in their states.

GoodCall: From the perspective of increased access to college, what’s the significance of then opening professional licensing to undocumented college graduates?

Grantham: It’s surprising how many professions require a license of some kind. Everything from electrician to neurosurgeon requires licensing. Lots of college grads will want to pursue a field that requires licensing (even if they don’t know it when they first start out). Licensing undocumented students across all fields is key to them contributing to the U.S. economy and giving back to the communities they love.

GoodCall: What are some other challenges to getting a job after college for undocumented students?

Grantham: Often undocumented students do not have the same networks or exposure to different job fields as their peers.  At Golden Door Scholars, we encourage students to job shadow, intern, and conduct informational interviews to learn as much as they can before they commit to a field. We help make those connections wherever we can.

Monica Harvin
Monica is a GoodCall contributing editor, covering personal finance and education. She's also GoodCall's diversity expert, with a master's degree in Latin American studies from UCLA and bachelor's degree in history from the University of Florida.

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