States Seeking to Curb Illegal Immigration Can Start by Curbing Access to Professional Licenses

By Jessica M. Vaughan on May 24, 2024

Last November, shortly after House Republicans elected Mike Johnson as speaker of the House, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and 25 other state attorneys general (AG) co-signers, urged the speaker to bring forward H.R. 1337, the “Immigration Enforcement Partnership Act of 2023” filed by Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), a bill that would give state AGs greater authority to “combat illegal immigration” when the federal government does not.

While they wait for Congress to act on their request, these AGs should ensure that their own state laws do not inadvertently assist illegal migrants or the irresponsible immigration policies that the AGs are challenging in court. One area in which state laws can conflict with the goal of deterring illegal immigration is a state’s authority to grant commercial, professional, and occupational licenses. These licenses are considered public benefits to which illegal aliens are generally not entitled unless such eligibility has been affirmatively authorized by state legislation.

Such licenses are required in many states to work as teachers, lawyers, nurses, electricians, cosmetologists, and more. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 20 percent of U.S. workers require a license in their occupation.

Every state AG who signed the letter to Speaker Johnson has joined at least one, if not several, of the lawsuits challenging the substantial and irreparable harm caused to their state by the Biden administration’s disastrous immigration policies, including the administration’s abuse of the executive’s limited parole authority.

But in too many states, including some of those whose AGs have cried foul on Biden’s legally dubious parole and work permit giveaways, state lawmakers have allowed illegal border-crossers and other inadmissible aliens waved in by Biden to be eligible not only for a work permit, but also for commercial and professional licenses — even though they don’t qualify for these benefits under the controlling federal law.

Sponsors of such state bills, urged on by chambers of commerce and other business interests, typically justify these measures by saying that they are intended to help the beneficiaries of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a group of about 530,000 adults who arrived in the United States illegally as minors before 2007. These individuals lack legal status but were granted work permits and protection from deportation beginning in 2012, and are largely considered sympathetic cases by the general public.

However, most of these state commercial and professional license bills would, in fact, benefit a much larger population than DACA beneficiaries. They also would provide the state occupational/commercial licensing benefit to a large group of inadmissible but temporarily authorized beneficiaries of Biden’s controversial open-door policies, including asylum applicants; recent illegal border-crossers who have never applied for asylum; inadmissible Ukrainian, Afghan, Cuban, Haitian, Venezuelan, and Nicaraguan parolees who have benefited from the Biden administration’s unauthorized entry programs — not to mention those who were awarded Temporary Protected Status (TPS) after disasters in their home country, all of whom have a temporary — and tenuous — lawful immigration status under current federal law.

On its face, it is inconsistent for AGs to challenge Biden’s expansive temporary work permit programs, but then ignore the push for new state laws that allow public benefits such as professional licenses to go to these same inadmissible aliens.

Last year, Florida repealed a 2014 law that allowed aliens with work authorization but without a valid immigration status to obtain a license to practice law in the state. The now-repealed law had benefitted DACA recipients and some holders of TPS. This year, the Tennessee legislature also has corrected its law that had allowed status-less work permit holders to get professional licenses.

AGs from Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi, Utah, and West Virginia have each signed AG Moody’s letter endorsing H.R. 1137. Paradoxically, lawmakers in each of these states have granted eligibility for state commercial and/or professional licenses to work-authorized but inadmissible and potentially removable aliens who have no lawful immigration status. In many of these states, the bill sponsors have highlighted the benefit for DACA and TPS recipients, even though the bill language includes all those with work permits. In 2021, a similar bill in South Carolina failed to cross the finish line.

A recent CIS analysis of the U.S. Senate border bill emphasized the “pull factor” of work authorization and its role in inducing illegal immigration and strongly counsels against state laws that tie eligibility for public benefits to work authorization. These state laws also undermine the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) passed in 1996 intended, in part, to cut the link between illegal immigration and the availability of public benefits — specifically including state-issued professional and commercial licenses.

State laws that base eligibility for state public benefits (including professional and commercial licenses) on temporary work authorization awarded by the federal government are counteracting legal efforts by their own attorneys general to minimize the negative impact of the Biden administration’s open-border policies.