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Some states responded to a shortage of skilled workers in health care jobs during the pandemic by easing state regulations to allow immigrant health professionals to practice.

States Move to Reduce Licensing Barriers for Immigrants

By Iris Hentze | July 21, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

The U.S. economy added 850,000 jobs in June, according to the latest report on payroll gains from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Simultaneously, average hourly pay rose 3.6% over the same time last year and many industries were facing critical worker shortages. Some states responded to a shortage of skilled workers in health care jobs at the height of the pandemic by easing state regulations to allow immigrant health professionals to practice. A few states, including Nevada and New Jersey, started allowing doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and other health care workers trained in other countries to practice within their borders and assist with the pandemic response.

During legislative sessions this year, states continued to address some of the common barriers immigrant workers face when trying to break into the U.S. labor market. Reducing codified barriers to professional licensure is one approach states pursued. In most states, for nearly all professional licenses, applicants must provide proof of U.S. citizenship to be considered eligible. Recently, Colorado, New Jersey and New Mexico all passed legislation either eliminating or amending existing citizenship requirements for licensure.

The Colorado General Assembly passed a bill eliminating the requirement that the state’s two largest licensing entities verify an applicant’s lawful presence before granting a professional or occupational license. The bill also specifies that lawful presence is not required for any state or local license, certificate or registration in Colorado. Similar bills became law in New Jersey and New Mexico, though the latter state’s measure applies only to a select group of occupations and professions listed in the bill rather than all the occupations the state regulates.

Recognizing Foreign Training

In addition to U.S. citizenship requirements, a lack of recognition of foreign education and training proves especially difficult for many immigrants to overcome when seeking professional licensure. In response, state legislatures have considered bills recently to allow occupational licensing boards and agencies to recognize foreign licenses as well as foreign education and training. These laws don’t mandate that boards accept foreign credentials. Instead, they give states the opportunity to vet the qualifications of applicants who may have earned training and education abroad.

Virginia passed legislation last year allowing for the recognition of foreign education programs for massage therapy licenses, and the North Dakota Legislature considered a bill to allow foreign practitioners to provide services within the scope of practice of their titles in response to a disaster or emergency declared in the state. Maine lawmakers considered a bill this year that would have granted a certain level of recognition to foreign-trained dentists, and in Alaska, the Legislature considered a foreign-recognition bill for physical and occupational therapists. Although many of these state efforts have not become law, they indicate an increased appetite among legislators to examine state regulations to ensure existing licensing requirements are not unnecessarily keeping immigrant workers out of jobs.

Iris Hentze is a policy specialist in NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.

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