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For some immigrants, an easier path to professional work

15 Mar

NEW YORK — There were moments in nursing school when Hina Naveed was tempted to quit, not because she couldn’t do the work, but because she wondered whether, as an undocumented immigrant, she’d be allowed to get a license once she graduated.

“OK, I paid all this money. I got this far. I’ve been talking about how I’m so excited to be a nurse. I’ve really enjoyed my experiences in clinical. All it comes down to is a piece of paper,” said the 25-year-old New Yorker, who was brought to the U.S. by her Pakistani family at age 10.

New York and a handful of other states have been taking steps to remove the uncertainty for immigrants like Naveed, who were granted the legal right to work in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy implemented by the Obama administration in June 2012, but who still face legal and bureaucratic hurdles in earning professional licenses.

New York’s Board of Regents, which certifies or licenses more than 50 different types of professionals, including teachers, doctors, nurses, interior designers and architects, voted late last month to adopt regulations that would allow applications from undocumented immigrants who are holders of so-called DACA status. The regulations are up for a final vote and would take effect June 1, if approved.

California passed a law in 2014 that eased licensing restrictions in 40 professions for qualified persons regardless of immigration status. Florida is granting law licenses to DACA holders. Nevada opened up teaching licenses, said Tanya Broder of the National Immigration Law Center.

The federal policy is aimed at those who entered the U.S. before they were 16 years old and have been here continuously since 2007. It is not a legal immigration status, but it puts off deportation and gives eligible residents an access to things like legal employment and, in some places, in-state tuition rates at state colleges.

The right to work, though, isn’t the same as a right to teach or practice medicine. In New York, some professional licenses were previously limited by state statute to people who are citizens or have legal immigration status.

Last June, an appeals court in New York ruled in favor of an immigrant who passed his bar exam, but was initially denied a law license because he was brought to the United States illegally from Mexico when he was 5 years old.

That and other legal rulings in recent years led to the Board of Regents officially deciding to make the change and opening the licensing process up to DACA holders, provided they met all the educational requirements the licenses required.

Jose Perez, deputy general counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said that if kids go to college, get degrees and meet the requirements, a license shouldn’t be withheld.

“Having given them the benefit of higher education, we should be encouraging them to engage in these professions,” he said.

Naveed is eagerly looking forward to getting started in her profession, though she still must pass her licensing exam in April.

Not everyone is as lucky. Monica Sibri, 23, of New York’s Brooklyn borough, came to the U.S. from Ecuador three months after her 16th birthday, making her ineligible to apply for DACA. She is in college studying American politics and policy, something she chose because she knew there was no way her dream of practicing law or teaching would be possible.

“I had to choose something that wasn’t going to require me to get a license,” she said. And even with the degree she does get, without work authorization, “What am I going to do with that degree? I’m in a place of no hope with my personal future,” she said.