February 01, 2023
Baltimore City Police Commissioner Michael Harrison welcomes the new class of 22 police officer trainees at the University of Baltimore on orientation day at the Baltimore Police Academy in March of 2022. They undergo 30 weeks of training at the academy, followed by ten weeks of field training. File. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun). (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)
The usual anti-immigrant talking heads in the right-wing media may not realize it, but the U.S. military — the one branch of government they reliably see as virtuous — does not require its recruits to be U.S. citizens or even born in this country. Indeed, thousands of immigrants, all living permanently and legally in the United States, enlist each year. Americans should be grateful for their collective service. They defend their adopted homeland and risk their health and well-being so that the rest of us can live safe from the nation’s enemies. So why not allow them to provide the same sort of protection for our homes, schools, public areas and places of business from more run-of-the-mill threats?
In recent years, states have been grappling with whether to hire noncitizens as police officers and, in a related issue, whether such individuals should also be given the opportunity to be licensed health care workers. In both cases, there are often chronic labor shortages aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Under Maryland state law, noncitizens can be certified only if they have applied to be U.S. citizens and earn that status within five years. That could change this year, however; the General Assembly is now considering legislation allowing any honorably discharged veteran to be certified as a police officer.
The measure is bound to prove controversial — as all matters involving immigration tend to be under the current political climate — but it shouldn’t be. Rarely is there a better opportunity to match an unmet need with underutilized talent. Men and women who can be trusted to patrol the streets of Kandahar or Kirkuk can surely be trusted to walk a beat in Kenilworth Park or Keswick. That’s not to suggest we would expect police work to be about firepower; it isn’t. But new arrivals with their multicultural and bilingual talents would seem to bring their own set of skills to the table. Who better to help provide outreach to immigrant communities than someone who is a fellow immigrant? Meanwhile, the Baltimore Police Department has experienced chronic staffing problems, often losing officers faster than it can recruit replacements despite signing bonuses and other incentives. Other police departments are in the same boat.
It is particularly laughable that current Maryland law requires police officers to be awarded citizenship within five years. Not just because the wheels of the federal bureaucracy turn slowly but because it suggests that something downright tragic happens if a police officer who was regarded as fully qualified during his first 4 years and 11 months of service had to be shunned after four more weeks in the job. As state Sen. Cheryl Kagan, a Montgomery County Democrat and the bill’s lead Senate sponsor points out, the legislation simply allows police departments to cast a “wider net” for recruits.
Sen. Kagan has another piece of legislation, Senate Bill 187, set to be heard Feb. 7 before the Senate Finance Committee that would enable a similarly broadened net for those seeking to fill jobs in a variety of health occupations. It doesn’t change any of the standards for licensing involving training, education or other experience, but it would prevent licensing boards from requiring citizenship. Given the health care workforce shortage in Maryland and elsewhere, why is anything beyond proof of legal presence required? Consider, for example, that Maryland taxpayers already pay for public education for such individuals. And now, just at the moment when they can contribute to society in such positions as home health care aide or nurse, we would deny them that opportunity? At least 14 other states have chosen to toss citizenship as a requirement for occupational licensure. Maryland should join the club.
One of these days, we hope the anti-immigrant forces in Congress will recognize what certain people see only as a “border crisis” also offers an opportunity to grow the U.S. economy. That’s not to endorse “open borders” but to recognize that current U.S. immigration policy is failing to tap the talents of millions of people who could be valued contributors to society if only given a path to a green card, let alone citizenship. What a waste. But what an opportunity, too.