But Gomez’s path toward his dream job hit a regulatory barrier, one that impacts undocumented people across the nation: professional licensing. After looking at the website of his local community college in Eugene, Oregon, Gomez learned that a Social Security number (SSN) might be required to obtain a nursing license. Gomez ultimately changed direction and decided to pursue a degree in political science. He now works as a community organizer for the Latino Community Fund of Washington State.
Daniel Gomez, community organizer for the Latino Community Fund of Washington State, was one of several undocumented Washingtonians who testified before the House Consumer Protection and Business Committee in support of HB1889, a proposal to strike U.S. citizenship requirements for professional license applicants in certain fields. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)
Gomez was one of many undocumented Washingtonians who testified before the House Consumer Protection and Business Committee on Jan. 9 to support a proposal to build an easier path toward a professional license for people like him. House Bill 1889 would strike the requirement that applicants for professional licenses be U.S. citizens, allowing for the use of an individual tax identification number instead of a social security number. The bill would also encourage qualified undocumented students to pursue their dream jobs by addressing the lack of clarity surrounding which licenses require an SSN.
As of 2021, around 22% of U.S. jobs require a professional license or certificate, compared to just 5% in the 1950s, according to the Cato Institute. The credentials are granted after an applicant has completed testing, training and educational requirements, and are intended to protect consumers by limiting licensure to qualified individuals. However, licensing requirements create barriers to work for undocumented people due to U.S. citizenship requirements.
”It just occurs to me in my regular life that our immigration system’s broken,” said prime sponsor Rep. Amy Walen, D-Kirkland. “We have so many wonderful people in our communities … that maybe miss out on the chance to work because there’s an immigration status qualifier that’s really not relevant to whether they’re checked out to do the job.”
The bill lists optometrists, private investigators, private security guards, bail bond agents, money transmitters, and currency exchangers as professions that currently require licensees to be U.S. citizens. If passed into law, the bill would eliminate the requirement for these professions.
Some states, including Washington and Oregon, already do not require that applicants provide an SSN for many professions, including nursing. However, licensing agencies don’t always state this information clearly, and deciphering immigration law in an attempt to understand which professions are open to undocumented applicants has become a hurdle of its own, according to proponents of the bill.
Paul Ryan Villanueva, who testified on behalf of Communities for Our Colleges at the Jan. 9 hearing, told the committee how he dreamed of becoming a lawyer after studying political science at the University of Washington. However, after encountering a lack of clarity surrounding Social Security requirements for licensure, Villanueva decided to choose a different career path and recently received his master’s degree in public policy from the University of Washington.
“With the disclarity, that creates so much uncertainty for folks who are already insecure about their status, or maybe concerned about divulging information,” said Jake García, policy director of the Latino Community Fund, “This bill would … bring reassurance to folks that ‘You can do this regardless of your documentation status.’”
Fernando Ledesma, director of Communities for Our Colleges, knows how overwhelming it is to be an undocumented student; he was one himself. Fleeing a cycle of poverty and violence, Ledesma immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 2001 and faced many of the same challenges that undocumented students today face.
Ledesma has heard in conversations with students how the lack of clarity surrounding professional licensing is impacting students’ ability to seek well-paying jobs that they are qualified to do. For instance, Ledesma recalled a student who wanted to pursue a nursing degree but was discouraged after attempting to navigate the certification process.
“The certification appears that it requires a Social Security number, and so that creates confusion,” Ledesma said.
Ledesma said another issue could be that academic advisors are giving students incorrect information and discouraging them from entering fields that do not actually require an SSN.
Angelita Cervantes, who testified at the Jan. 9 hearing on behalf of Communities for Our Colleges, said she aspired to a career as a nurse but was discouraged by her college counselor, who told her she would be ineligible due to her documentation status. Cervantes later found out her counselor had given her incorrect information.
“Part of the challenge with this is that immigration law is really confusing,” Ledesma said. “What we’ve been hearing is that a lot of advisors don’t have the right information … a lot of professions don’t require Social Security numbers, but part of the issue is that advisors might think they do.”
Professions like nursing that don’t require a social security number may ask applicants to fill out a Declaration of No SSN form. However, Carolyn Pinedo-Turnovsky, an associate professor in UW’s American Ethnic Studies Department who is currently researching professional licensing, said this declaration is unsettling for students who fear revealing their documentation status.
Turnovsky said that among the group of young students she’s interviewed, Trump-era policies and rhetoric that emphasized punitive action against undocumented immigrants have exacerbated their fear of divulging information about their status.
“The fear and anxiety that the last administration amplified … I think that just resonates with this particular group,” Turnovsky said. “The reality of what’s been taken away, or what could be taken away … it’s impacted them so deeply that I think there’s just a greater fear.”
In addition to clarifying professional licensing requirements, proponents of this proposal say it’s simply good economic policy, and would help relieve workforce shortages in some professions. Many industries with labor shortages in Washington, such as nursing and dentistry, require licensing.
“We’re having trouble filling occupations that are crucial to taking care of Washington consumers,” Walen said. “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?”
More access to licensed occupations would also open opportunities for undocumented Washingtonians to earn more. A Brookings study found that unlicensed workers earn a median income of $18.80 per hour, versus $25 per hour for licensed workers. More income also means higher contributions to state and local tax revenue, boosting Washington’s economy.
Supporters of HB 1889 say they’re aware this is a significant bill and may take time to work through the Legislature. Walen said aside from technical concerns about how the bill would impact things like cryptocurrency and firearm registration, she hasn’t heard any substantive objection to it.
HB 1889 passed out of the House Committee on Consumer Protection & Business on Jan. 26.
“We’re sending a message to the rest of the state ... that we belong here, this is our land too, and that we want to contribute back,” Ledesma said.