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Professional licenses for undocumented immigrants

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A professional license authorizes practitioners of certain professions, such as medicine, law, social work, and cosmetology to work in a given industry. The licensing process exists to regulate a standard of skill and quality of service. Although state governments regulate professional licenses through state licensing boards, under federal law, professional licenses cannot be extended to undocumented immigrants unless states affirmatively opt out of such federal restrictions by enacting legislation to provide for eligibility.[i] Requirements to successfully gain a professional license vary between industries and states, and can consist of a combination of written examinations, demonstrated work experience and higher education.[ii]

Which states extend professional licenses to immigrants?

  • California: Legislators amended the state’s Business and Professional Code certain immigrants the ability to obtain any of the 40 enumerated professional licenses offered in the state, including licenses in professions such as law, teaching, medicine, cosmetology, and dentistry. Under the newly amended code[iii] which became effective January 1, 2016, applicants may provide an Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) in place of a social security number, and licensing bureaus are prohibited from denying an application on the basis of immigration status.
  • New York: In February 2016, the New York State Education Department’s Board of Regents approved a plan allowing certain lawfully present individuals to apply for professional licenses and teaching certification[iv]. Previously in 2015, the Supreme Court of the State of New York ruled that a DACA recipient may be admitted to the New York State Bar to practice law[v].
  • Nebraska: Nebraska lawmakers recognized the trend of young immigrants, who were unable to obtain professional licenses based on their immigration status, leaving the state after obtaining their education[vi].  In response, lawmakers introduced the Professional Licenses Bill (LB 947)  as a workforce development proposal to keep educated and skilled residents in Nebraska. The bill became law over objections from the governor.
  • Florida: Florida legislators passed the Undocumented Attorney bill (HB 775) that amended law licensing requirements to allow certain immigrants to obtain admission to the state bar so long as certain conditions are met – such as the applicant was brought to the United States as a minor and has been issued a Social Security number; has been present in the United States for more than 10 years; and has received documented employment authorization from the United States Citizenship and Immigration.[vii] 
  • Illinois: Similarly, in August of 2015, legislators amended the state’s Attorney Act (SB0023), to allow DACA recipients the ability to obtain a license to practice law in Illinois.[viii]

What are the benefits to granting professional licenses to undocumented immigrants?

  • Boost the State’s Economy: Granting professional licenses to undocumented immigrants would boost state economy. The United States’ 42 million immigrants make rich economic and social contributions to communities across the country[ix]. Our country currently has a strong and well educated immigrant work force. Nearly 24% of community college students have an immigrant background[x] and 41% of arriving immigrants hold at least a bachelor’s degree[xi]. Another study reported that undocumented immigrants in Texas who were employed in various industries in 2014 contributed nearly 1 billion dollars in state and local taxes.[xii] The increase in wages that would result from fully employing highly-skilled immigrant professionals could add millions of dollars in tax revenues.
  • Allows Immigrants to Fill Job Demands: Many of the areas where professional licenses are required include high-paying and high-demand jobs. Jobs in areas such as the medical field or engineering represent high-earning positions that are currently vacant in certain parts of the country as there is not enough current college graduates entering these fields.  Granting professional licenses to undocumented college graduates would allow these jobs to be filled and contribute to the state’s workforce.[xiii]
  • Allows States to Benefit from Educational Investment: Prior educational investment is the crux of many arguments in support of expanding access to higher education and professional licensing to undocumented students educated in public schools across the country.[xiv] Granting professional licenses to undocumented students who have benefited from American public education allows them to join the workforce and contribute to the state’s economy thus allowing the state to get a return on its investment.
  • Promotes Economic Self-Sufficiency within Immigrant Communities: Granting professional licenses to undocumented immigrants would empower immigrants to become economically self-sufficient and allow them to participate in the development of their communities.

What You Can Do to Help Extend Professional Licenses to Undocumented Immigrants?

  • Encourage state lawmakers to enact legislation: As business leaders address the urgent needs of American companies and businesses, it is important to ensure that immigrants are included in the solutions. We must encourage our state legislators to allow hardworking immigrants to fully contribute to local economies and provide our business communities with the trained and motivated employees it needs to grow. 
  • Highlight the benefits of having immigrant-entrepreneurs in your community: Some of the United States most successful companies, such as Google[xv], were founded by immigrants who have created jobs for thousands of citizens and non-citizens. Study shows that 25% of U.S. companies that are supported by venture capital investors were started by immigrants.[xvi]
  • Seek out local businesses to share success stories: Contact local businesses in your area who employ skilled immigrant workers to share their success stories of how immigrant employees have contributed to their company’s growth. 

[ii] “States Grapple with Undocumented Immigrant Law Licenses,” Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, Jayne Reardon, July 14, 2015 retrieved from

[iv]Press Release: “Board of Regents Approves Regulations to Allow DACA Recipients to Apply for Teacher Certification and Professional Licenses,” New York State Education Department, February 24, 2016, retrieved from

[v] Matter of Vargas, 131 AD3d 4 (2nd Dept. 2015)

[vi] “Nebraska moves to allow professional licenses for immigrants,” Associated Press, Grant Schulte, April 13, 2016 retrieved from

[vii] “Governor signs undocumented attorney bill,” The Florida Bar News, Jan Pudlow, June 1, 2014 retrieved from

[ix] “Why American Cities Are Fighting to Attract Immigrants,” The Atlantic, Ted Hesson, July 21, 2015 retrieved from

[x] Visit Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education website for more details:

[xi] “Today’s newly arrived immigrants are the best-educated ever,” Pew Research Center, Richard Fry, October 5, 2015 retrieved from

[xii] “The Contributions of New Americans in Texas,” New American Economy August 2016, at pg. 34. Read full report:

[xiii] “New York Is Next State to Open Professional Licensing to Undocumented Students. Will Others Follow?,” GoodCall, Monica Harvin, June 21, 2016 retrieved from

[xiv] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012-2013, it cost an estimated $12,296 per year to educate one public school student, which amounts to $164,732.47 invested in a student who attended K-12 in the United States; National Center for Education Statistics, retrieved from:  

[xv] “16 Iconic American Companies Founded By Immigrants,” The Huffington Post, April 22, 2013, last updated August 15, 2013 retrieved from:

[xvi] “Ten Ways Immigrants Help Build and Strengthen Our Economy,” White House Blog, Jason Furman, Danielle Gray, July 12, 2012 retrieved from: