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State of Washington Opens Professional Licenses To Undocumented Immigrants, In Boon to Local Workforces and Economy

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Washington state residents, regardless of immigration status, will soon be able to pursue their career goals, following the signing of legislation changing certain application requirements for professional licenses. Last week, Democratic Governor Jay Inslee signed H.B. 1889, “which allows the use of individual tax identification numbers — often used by immigrants without legal status to file taxes — instead of social security numbers on professional license applications,” the Washington State Standard reports

H.B. 1889 passed by strong majorities in both chambers of the state legislature and will “open doors for careers in teaching, health care, accounting, and many other professions to those who are ready to join the Washington workforce,” Gov. Inslee said.

The state is home to more than 10,300 undocumented students, according to the Higher Ed Immigration Portal. Lizbeth Cervantes, a student at Heritage University, said she has a goal of working as a lab technician. But “to work in a medical laboratory requires a professional license,” she said in a 2023 report from Alliance for a Just Society (AJS) and Communities for Our Colleges (C4C). “I have attended a good school and have put in the hours of study to earn my degree. All this work still does not mean access to a career. I am worried because, without a license, I will not be able to work in my field.”

The bill is also a smart economic policy when several of these professional fields are dealing with a shortage of workers. “Many industries with labor shortages in Washington, such as nursing and dentistry, require licensing,” Crosscut (local public broadcasting) reported in January. AJS and C4C said the state is facing a shortage of 6,000 nurses.

“We’re having trouble filling occupations that are crucial to taking care of Washington consumers,” state Rep. Amy Walen (D-48), the bill’s main sponsor, told Crosscut. “If someone can pass the very rigorous standards that we have in the state of Washington … why do we need to know about their federal documentation status?” 

During a 2022 hearing, U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) said immigrants can help fill these critical gaps. “How? Because, in large part, they already are. One in every four physicians and one in every six nurses is an immigrant in the United States.” Immigrants play an outsized role in elder and disability care, with immigrant workers representing more than half of home health aides in New York. In New Jersey, 49% of caregivers are immigrants. In Florida, nearly 45% are immigrants. In Arizona, about a quarter are immigrants

Without federal action on immigration reform, state policies like H.B. 1889 can help immigrants support themselves and their families, fill critical labor shortages, and boost local and state economies. States, including California, Illinois, and New Jersey, have previously opened professional licenses to undocumented workers, adding to their coffers and workforce. In Washington state, undocumented immigrants already contribute more than $367 million in local and state taxes annually, according to the American Immigration Council. DACA beneficiaries and young immigrants eligible for DACA pay nearly $50 million in local and state taxes annually.

The University of Washington Tacoma’s Reese Ramirez said that the roughly 200 undocumented students at the school “are just a small portion of whom this legislation will affect in our community.” The state is home to roughly 300,000 undocumented residents. “Students at UW T have family members, friends and co-workers whose immigration status, not their professional qualifications, prevent them from applying for professional licenses,” Ramirez continued, adding that “there is an untapped reserve of qualified workers who can make a difference and a contribution to our state’s economy.” 

Discussions around the bill could also address misconceptions that may have prevented some prospective workers from pursuing their goals. Yakima Valley College student Angelita Cervantes told AJS and C4C that she wanted to become a nurse but that a school counselor dissuaded her due to her immigration status. “I later discovered that the counselor had given me misinformation and that Washington state had no such restriction,” Cervantes said.

“Undocumented students who obtain higher education and have the same skills and qualifications as others are being turned away at the doorsteps of fulfilling their potential,” AJS and C4C said. “These students’ dreams of becoming nurses, teachers, or beauty professionals are providing for their families and building our communities. Fulfilling their dreams and aspirations returns the investment Washington state has made in their education back to the state. To do otherwise is shortsighted and costly.”

“I want to share that I, and students like myself, want to learn, work, and help the country,” Cervantes continued to AJS and C4C. “With access to a professional license, I would be able to help others as a health care professional.”