Author Gloria Rodriguez was a 2019-2020 Líderes Avanzando Through College Fellow.
This year started out with what would be the latest in a string of recent victories for New Jersey’s immigrant community. In January, Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill allowing undocumented people in New Jersey to obtain driver’s licenses. A year prior, the state passed a bill requiring that all New Jersey employees earn a minimum wage of $15 by 2024, regardless of their immigration status. And in 2018, Murphy signed a bill allowing qualified undocumented immigrants to receive financial aid to continue their education.
Now the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting yet another area where the state could make important advancements for the immigrant community: occupational licenses. As of mid-April, New Jersey had more than 78,000 COVID-19 cases, making it one of the hardest-hit states in the union. In an effort to save lives and curb the pandemic, Governor Murphy decided to allow immigrant doctors licensed to practice medicine in other countries to receive temporary, emergency licenses.
“As New Jersey battles the second highest number of COVID-19 cases in the nation, 5,000 DACA recipients in the state are working in health care, education, and food-related occupations. Likewise, there are 7,500 essential workers with TPS status,” Francisco Pelayo, deputy communications director for United States Senator Robert Menendez, wrote in an April 28th press release.
But helping the state move through and beyond the pandemic could be further aided by providing immigrants the ability to obtain occupational licenses for more than 200 other jobs.
Those include licenses for teachers, nurses, and doctors, all of whom will be desperately needed as the state struggles to get back on its feet and adapt to a new, post-pandemic way of life. In fact, these licenses contribute to a safer more accountable workforce because they are designed to provide consumer protection and public safety. To obtain these licenses, one must undergo several months or years of education and training, so in essence, occupational license seekers will be adapting in real time to this new way of working.
These licenses also benefit our economy by generating profits from tuition, testing fees, and renewal expenses. But with the exception of those temporary foreign-doctor licenses, New Jersey state law requires occupational license seekers to show proof of U.S. citizenship or permanent legal residence, or have some other way to prove they are legally in the country. And to complicate matters, recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program, for undocumented people whose parents brought them into the country when they were minors, have the right to study but not necessarily to work in the jobs for which they trained. Among these exemptions are some areas of medicine, law, engineering, and education.
I am a New Jersey DREAMer who had the privilege of attending Essex County West Caldwell Vocational Technical High School where I obtained my Occupational Cosmetology License. But I want to go further. My greatest dream is to become a teacher after finishing my major in education at Bloomfield College.
Education is another area that has experienced significant disruption during the pandemic, so the state will need a lot of innovative teachers to help students get back on track, whether that’s online or back in a physical classroom. I could be one of those teachers obtaining the training to meet those needs.
For that reason, I am continuing my work to push the passing of occupational licenses by working together with the organization Make the Road New Jersey. Even though we were forced to cancel rallies which would have taken place at the New Jersey State Hour in Trenton, we took advantage of technology and created virtual meetings. In April, the organization launched the “NJ is Home” platform, explaining how New Jersey could protect DACA recipients as the U.S. Supreme Court had to make a decision on DACA. Once of the examples included the expansion of access to occupational licenses. Along with several DREAMers, we spoke with prominent people such as New Jersey’s Secretary of Higher Education Dr. Ellis and Assemblyman Mukherji about this issue, and advocated for more state protections of DACA recipients.
On June 24, the bill for occupation licenses was introduced to the New Jersey Senate Commerce committee. I was privileged to give my testimony in support of this bill. To our luck, the pill passed and my hope to become a teacher grew. Slowly, the bill moved from the committee hearing to the Senate floor, and when we least expected it, the bill was scheduled to be heard on the Assembly floor on July 30.
The day before the hearing, I couldn’t help feeling a mix of emotions such as stress, happiness, and fear. I knew that if the assembly failed to pass the bill, I would go back to the uncertainty of graduating college without a license and little opportunity to get a job in a public school. I feared letting my family and community down. I wanted the bill to pass, but at that moment there wasn’t much for me to do other than to be hopeful.
The next day I woke up feeling like a stranger. At 1:00 p.m., I joined members of Make the Road NJ in a virtual call in which we watched the vote. I felt nervous and when I least expected it, everyone in the call started shouting “it passed.” When my mentor sent me a message that said, “you’re going to be a teacher,” tears fell from my eyes.
I was living the day I most anticipated in my life and I was numb. I thought it was surreal. Thoughts of undocumented people in New Jersey will finally make their dreams come true to become professionals in different fields.
I will continue my work with Make the Road NJ to urge our Governor Phil Murphy to sign the bill. Undocumented New Jersians who call NJ their home will finally get to make the dreams come true.