Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigrants without legal status able to apply for professional licenses in CA

Advocates say the new law was inspired in part by Sergio Garcia, an immigrant in the country illegally who was issued a law license after the state Supreme Court ruled in his favor earlier this year.
Advocates say the new law was inspired in part by Sergio Garcia, an immigrant in the country illegally who was issued a law license after the state Supreme Court ruled in his favor earlier this year.
Nick Ut/AP

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Immigrants in the country illegally can apply for professional licenses under a new California law that aims to integrate them into the working world and generate new tax dollars for the state.

The new law - SB 1159 - requires all 40 licensing boards under the California Department of Consumer Affairs to consider applicants regardless of immigration status by 2016.

The law change follows a landmark state Supreme Court case earlier this year in which justices ruled that lawyer Sergio Garcia should be admitted to the California bar despite lacking legal status.

Denisse Rojas, who's applying to medical school, said the new law is a huge relief for students pursuing careers that require licenses, such as medicine and dentistry. 

"For there to be something in legislation in California that says immigration status shouldn't prohibit someone from obtaining a professional license — that's extremely beneficial, " said Rojas, a 25-year-old University of California, Berkeley graduate and a student leader in Pre-Health Dreamers.

Other immigrants, already in the working world, said the new law would allow them to improve their earning potential. 

"For so much time, I have not heard good news like this," said Jorge, a 32-year-old bookkeeper from Los Angeles who asked KPCC not to disclose his last name. He felt that some clients might be unnecessarily alarmed if his immigration status was revealed.

Jorge said that he was going to begin studying to be a C.P.A.

"This is going to be adding to my resume," Jorge said. "This is going to be adding to my credibility."

But the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which calls for limited immigration, said that California is breaking federal law.

"It's another example of California state government just completely obliterating any distinction between people legally present and those who are in violation of federal law," said Federation for American Immigration Reform spokesman Ira Mehlman.

Conservative immigration activists have criticized California for allowing immigrants without legal status to apply for driver's licenses, or seek in-state college tuition.

Prior to the law change, licensing boards would only consider applicants with social security numbers, something unavailable to immigrants in the country illegally. The new bill directs licensing boards to also accept federal taxpayer identification numbers issued by the IRS.

Starting in 2012, some immigrants who came to the country illegally have been able to get social security numbers through a program for young adults called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.  But DACA recipients need to renew their status in the program every two years. Rojas, who is enrolled in the program, said the new California law "gives affirmation that professional licensing will be an option with or without DACA."

Joseph Villela, policy advocate at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said that the focus in California has been on helping immigrant students without permanent legal status known as Dreamers get an affordable education. 

"This law will not only be incentive for those immigrant youth to finish that education. It makes sure that once they're finished, they have a way to exercise that profession by providing them with a license," Villela said.

Supporters of the law say it will encourage more of the estimated 1.85 million working immigrants in California to contribute taxes. The Immigration Policy Center found that "unauthorized workers" have already contributed billions — an estimated $2.7 billion in state taxes in 2010.

Supporters of the new licensing law, sponsored by Sen. Ricard Lara, D-Bell Gardens, ranged from the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce to the ACLU and immigrant rights groups.