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Removing Professional Barriers for People Who Are Immigrants Can Help States and Families Prosper

| By Adriana Mendoza y

States have a range of policies that regulate access to certain professional fields, such as medicine and skilled trades — policies that often prevent people from accessing jobs for which they’re qualified, simply because of their immigration status. Eligibility rules for people who are immigrants seeking professional and occupational licenses vary by state, and sometimes by licensing agency or profession within a state. Licensing reform that fully utilizes immigrants’ education, training, and skills would help not just them but also states as they attempt to address worker shortages in critical fields such as health care and education that the pandemic has exacerbated. At least 21 states have recently advanced proposals to remove barriers to professional licenses for people who are immigrants. States should continue to expand opportunity for immigrants and create more inclusive professional pathways for people regardless of their immigration status.

Over the last 60 years, the number of jobs requiring licensure has grown from about 1 in 20 to nearly 1 in 4. A professional or occupational license allows people to practice certain professions within fields such as medicine, teaching, plumbing, and cosmetology, which often require education, training, and skill tests. While licensing based on qualifications helps to ensure quality and safety, requirements based on who workers are limit labor supply and keep qualified workers out of jobs in their communities.

Requirements based on a person’s immigration status can often lead to underemployment — working in jobs that do not make full use of people’s talents and training — or even unemployment, among people who are immigrants. This is particularly true for immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and the Philippines and those with low incomes.

Many people who are immigrants in the U.S. are unable to practice in the field for which they were trained and are fully qualified, even if they have a documented immigration status and federal work authorization. This is due to obstacles in obtaining an occupational license due to immigration status, receiving recognition for credentials received abroad, and meeting English proficiency requirements. Access to professional licenses for people who are immigrants also varies considerably by state and even between licensing agencies within the same state.

Enabling people who are immigrants to put their professional qualifications to full use can increase their likelihood of employment and earning higher wages, benefiting workers, their families, and their local communities and economies. Due to underemployment, college-educated immigrants forgo annual earnings of $39 billion nationally, leading to approximately $10 billion in uncollected local, state, and federal tax revenues, according to research. These earnings could be used at local businesses and the revenues could be used to invest in high-quality schools and other public services.

Roughly 263,000 health professionals who were immigrants did not work in 2020 due to states’ varying barriers to professional licenses based on English language requirements, recognition of foreign credentials, and discrimination by employers. This included doctors, nurses, and therapists, resulting in a loss of language and cultural skills that are key to reaching and building trust among people who face language barriers or other obstacles when accessing health care.

Even before the pandemic, teacher and school support staff shortages — particularly pronounced among schools serving more students of color and students from low-income families — were such that states were recruiting people who are immigrants to fill them. Reducing obstacles to obtain professional licensing for these roles is crucial to further reduce these shortages, both for the well-being of immigrants and the communities they are part of. As of November 2022, almost 2.1 million jobs remained vacant in the education and health care sectors.

Enacting federal legislation such as the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farmworker Modernization Act passed by the House in 2021 would help to create pathways to lawful permanent residence and eventually citizenship for people without a documented immigration status. Additional federal efforts would also help immigrants currently excluded from professional licensing. In the meantime, states can take steps to remove immigration-related barriers to professional and occupation licenses:

  • Offer licenses regardless of immigration status. For example, California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, and New Mexico passed laws to remove immigration-related requirements in professional licensing. These states allowed people to provide Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs), instead of a Social Security number, for professional licensure.
  • Extend professional licenses to all individuals with federal employment authorization. A few states — Arkansas, Nebraska, and New York — issue professional licenses to people with work authorization. In 2021 Arkansas made access to occupational or professional licenses available to people with work authorization, including 5,000 people under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
  • Develop programs to upgrade job-specific skills and assist with work-related English proficiency to meet state licensing requirements. For example, Colorado’s clinical readiness program helps international medical graduates build skills for residency programs in the state. Maine and Washington State established programs to provide work-based learning courses for immigrants and to improve language skills for specific occupations and careers.
  • Use federal funding to identify key areas for reform and craft individualized policy recommendations. At the federal level, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) provides funding and technical assistance for states to better integrate immigrants trained abroad into the U.S. workforce and to streamline the professional licensure process. For example, Maryland used WIOA funding to create the Maryland Skilled Immigrants Task Force, which developed a career pathways guide to help internationally trained engineers in Maryland return to their profession.

States play a very important role in setting licensure requirements that address workforce shortages and encourage economic participation and growth for everyone. While some of these requirements safeguard the health and safety of consumers, requirements that discriminate based on who workers are prevent qualified people who are immigrants from re-entering the fields in which they are trained. More states should take steps to reduce these unfair barriers for people who are immigrants so that they can fully participate in and contribute to their states, communities, and economies.

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Adriana Mendoza

State Fiscal Policy Intern