New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signs gun violence prevention legislation in Morristown, NJ. – MORRISTOWN, NJ/USA – SEPTEMBER 10, 2019 (Shutterstock)
By Monsy Alvarado, NorthJersey.com
Immigrants without legal status can now obtain professional and occupational licenses in New Jersey as long as they meet all other requirements under a bill signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Phil Murphy.
In a virtual signing ceremony broadcast live on Facebook, Murphy said the bill prohibits lawful presence in the United States as a qualification for obtaining the licenses, which are required by many professions.
He said the bill was “the right and smart” thing to do in New Jersey and helps fill labor shortages in health professions and other fields by immigrants and “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
“This bill is a good idea no matter what, but God knows the strain and stress on our medical and health professions made its timing and its urgency even more so,” he said, referring to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of thousands in the state.
Gov. Phil Murphy signs bill into law that will allow undocumented immigrants in the state to obtain professional and occupational licenses in New Jersey. The bill was signed during a virtual video conference call held on Sept. 1, 2020. Monsy Alvarado/NorthJersey.com
“Very simply, this eliminates a roadblock. There have been many that have been put up against our immigrant families and communities, against our Dreamers, and this is yet another one that will be removed,” he added.
The sweeping legislation is the first on the East Coast that removes all immigration barriers to obtaining professional and occupational licenses, immigration advocates said. California, Nevada, and New Mexico are among other states with similar legislation.
In New Jersey, professions and occupations that require licenses include accountants, architects, acupuncturists, audiologists, beauticians, court reporters, cosmetologists, doctors, dentists, engineers, home inspectors, morticians, nurses, occupational therapists, optometrists, pharmacists, plumbers, real estate appraisers, social workers, and veterinarians.
Paul Rodriguez, the acting director of the Division of Consumer Affairs, who will oversee the implementation of the legislation, said the law takes effect immediately.
He said in New Jersey there are 51 occupational and professional licensing boards that license collectively about 750,000 individuals across 175 professions in the state. The boards review educational and training requirements before approving licenses.
Rodriguez said the office has received many calls from residents who have the required training but don’t meet certain residency requirements. He said many of them are Dreamers.
“Eliminating the residency requirements will give immigrant students, regardless of status, an incentive to finish their education, integrate into the professional world, and make fuller contributions to and strengthen our state’s community and economy,” he said.
Rodriguez noted that the office is in the process of making adjustments to application forms. In the meantime, he said, those who meet all requirements for a license are urged to contact their respective licensing board.
The law has its critics, some of whom have said it will allow immigrants without legal status to compete for professional jobs that could go to legal residents and U.S. citizens. Several people who were watching the virtual signing commented about their displeasure with the bill.
Others have said the law is a way of circumventing federal laws.
Federal law prohibits employers from hiring someone living in the country illegally, but immigrants of any legal status are able to work as independent contractors or to start a business using a Social Security number or Individual Tax Identification Number.
Erika Martinez, an organizer for Make the Road New Jersey, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Elizabeth, said advocates, including undocumented immigrants, had been pushing for the bill for two years. She said she met with many immigrants who could benefit from the law.
“We’ve met electricians, nurse aides, and CPAs that have completed their training but are unable to work in their field in New Jersey,” she said.
The Migration Policy Institute said that about 97,000 or 23 percent of New Jersey’s estimated 526,000 undocumented residents have a Bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree.
Estrella Rivas of Elizabeth is a student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick who wants to pursue a career in medicine. She was among the participants in the conference call and talked about why the legislation was so important for immigrants like her.
Rivas, who moved to the United States from El Salvador when she was 5 years old, said she was in high school when she began to understand what it meant to be undocumented. She said that in school she did well in her science and math classes and began to think about becoming a doctor to help her family.
She said the pandemic only sharpened her interest in serving the community.
“As more than 100,000 people in New Jersey have become sick and too many have lost their lives, I have watched from the sidelines wishing I could jump in to help,” she said.
“Today that changes. Today New Jersey opens the door for opportunities for immigrants across the state who are ready to serve,” she said.
State Sen. Nellie Pou, among the lead sponsors of the bill, said she was happy to put forth “progressive legislation” to remove “out-of-date” barriers to occupational licenses.
“Today is a very important historic day,” she said.