No professional licenses for Indiana ‘Dreamers’ without bill

Young immigrants commonly referred to as "Dreamers" will be shut out of jobs in Indiana unless emergency legislation is approved to override a new practice adopted by the state’s professional licensing agency.

The term "Dreamers" refers to young immigrants, typically brought to the U.S. illegally as children, who have had protection from deportation under a program developed under former President Barack Obama known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Indiana has more than 9,000 participants in the program. They are legally allowed to work and go to school. But under a recently adopted policy by the Indiana Professional Licensing Agency, they can no longer obtain or renew a professional license.

"Indiana has boxed-out these young people and this is an opportunity to fix that," said Rep. Ed Clere, a Republican from New Albany who was first notified of the issue several weeks ago by a young woman in his district who was finishing cosmetology school but couldn't get a professional license due to her DACA status.

He helped draft an override measure, which a House committee added to an existing bill that was approved unanimously on Tuesday by the House Government and Regulatory Reform committee, but it would still need the backing of the full House and Senate.

Clere said the agency's decision sends a "terrible" message.

"This is devastating for individuals and harmful to employers who could lose a cosmetologist, or a plumber, or an engineer, or a nurse — to name a few," he said.

Indiana's Professional Licensing Agency did not respond to requests for comment. In a written statement, Gov. Eric Holcomb said the agency followed the law, but he didn't address why the agency abruptly changed its practice years after DACA took effect.

"Congress needs to clarify federal immigration law regarding DACA. But, until they act, Indiana state law should allow DACA recipients to skill up and work here in Indiana," the Republican governor said. "I am encouraged to see there is legislative intent to fix this."

Nancy Campbell, principal at the Prosser Career Education Center in New Albany, said she's had a handful of students who haven't been able to get a license as a result of the change.

"From an educator's perspective, any time there is a block keeping kids from getting what they need, it's just disheartening," she said.

At issue is the agency's interpretation of a 2011 Republican-backed state law that predates the DACA program, which started the following year. The agency only recently adopted new licensing forms to comply with the 2011 law requiring applicants to certify that they are either a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. DACA recipients don't fit into either category.

It's hard to tell how many people have been affected since the new forms were adopted several months ago. Clere said anecdotal accounts suggest people across the state have been unable to obtain licenses.

What's also uncertain is how much longer the DACA program will be around. President Donald Trump decided last year to phase out the program for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, calling on Congress to pass a law to address the plight of "Dreamers." Several proposals have been discussed in recent weeks, but little progress has been made.

"This is fixing a very specific problem here in Indiana," said Clere. "Congress needs to act on immigration."

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