It's time to allow immigrants to earn professional licenses

Congress can expand access to thousands of jobs by revising outdated licensing laws for work-authorized immigrants like DACA and TPS recipients
By expanding access to more immigrants with work authorization to hold professional licenses, we could lessen the skills gap, grow our economy, and benefit our communities in the process.

Labor shortages for critical occupations, including healthcare workers and K-12 teachers, have persisted and even worsened through the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when Americans are relying on these essential workers more than ever. As the country recovers from the pandemic and communities begin to reopen, more will need to be done to recruit professionals into these fields that faced dire shortages even when the workforce was at full employment.

Congress could easily expand access to thousands of jobs for millions of trained workers, simply by revising outdated laws that forbid many immigrants with work authorization from holding professional licenses.

These outdated laws prevent talented, hardworking individuals from contributing their skills to our economy and our communities, particularly in essential industries that require special licensure. By expanding access to more immigrants with work authorization to hold professional licenses, we could lessen the skills gap, grow our economy, and benefit our communities in the process.

Take Rosa Ruvalcaba Serna, a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient born in Mexico who grew up in Arkansas, dreaming of becoming a nurse to treat sick children. Even though she grew up here, worked her way through college, and succeeded in medical school, her immigration status nearly barred Rosa from obtaining a nursing license.

That’s because of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996, which prohibits certain immigrants from earning professional or occupational licenses unless their state passes specific legislation allowing access. This includes immigrants on temporary visas and undocumented immigrants, even if they have permission to stay and work lawfully in the country under programs like DACA and TPS (Temporary Protected Status). Today, one in four workers holds a job that requires a license, but only 10 states have passed exemptions for immigrants, and these are mostly limited to specific groups of individuals or those with specific occupations.

25% of U.S. workers
Employed in jobs requiring special licensure
Institute for JusticeLicense to Work: A National Study of Burdens from Occupational Licenses

At the time, Congress was wrongfully operating under the assumption that by passing PRWORA they would ensure immigrants were self-sufficient and not reliant on public benefits. But the law has had the opposite effect. By actively barring immigrants from gainful employment even if the government has given them permission to work, it has limited their road to self-sufficiency and the contributions to public benefit programs employment brings.

PRWORA has not only restricted immigrants’ potential, but has limited their ability to support themselves and their families. Many immigrants, particularly DACA recipients, live in mixed status families and are responsible for supporting their families financially, including the more than 300,000 U.S. citizen children they are parents to.

Barring immigrants with valid work authorizations from certain jobs sacrifices the investments our country has made in their education and development and wastes the potential skills they could contribute. Because they are working with an employment authorization document, they are subject to the same wage and labor laws as any other workers. In fact, their employers wouldn’t even know they are immigrants until after they’re hired. Meanwhile, Meanwhile, DACA recipients are already contributing roughly 11.7 billion a year to the economy—including federal, state, and local taxes. That number could be significantly increased if they were able to access full employment.

1.3 million
Open jobs in education and health services
Bureau of Labor StatisticsJob Openings and Labor Turnover Survey

Allowing immigrants to earn appropriate licensure could also help address worsening labor shortages challenging critical fields like teaching and nursing, fields in which a third of DACA recipients want to work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that as of July 2022, there were nearly 2.2 million open jobs in the education and health services sectors, about twice the number that existed only five years ago. And as our population skews increasingly older, fields like healthcare services will only see greater demand. We will need more people like Rosa who have the education and training to serve in these critical areas.

Rosa’s story and others like it moved Arkansas lawmakers to pass legislation allowing DACA recipients to earn nursing licenses, and Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson signed it into law earlier this year. Rosa is able to pursue her dream, but across the country, hundreds of thousands of skilled immigrants are still locked out.

Read the Brief: Expanding Eligibility for Professional and Occupational Licensing for ImmigrantsFrom the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration,, Niskanen Center, TheDream.US, and United We Dream

This is why joined other issue experts in publishing a policy brief detailing how state and federal lawmakers can expand access to licenses for immigrants. While we recommend state legislatures reform licensing laws so that immigration status is not a barrier, there are thousands of these laws across states.

The best and most expedient solution is for Congress to amend PRWORA to remove the prohibition altogether, bringing it into line with the scope of the work authorization granted to these immigrants. Additionally, if the Senate takes up the American Dream and Promise Act, passed by the House earlier this year, many of these individuals would be able to earn legal status, making them eligible for these licenses across the board.

The answer is clear – the barring of licensure to skilled immigrants is hurting our communities and economy, and Congress needs to act.

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Andrew Moriarty

Deputy Director of Federal Policy

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