Feb. 16, 2020
Ewaoluwa Ogundana, a 22-year-old DACA recipient, wrote a blog post about a workforce barrier that’s holding many undocumented immigrants back. Now, lawmakers are taking action.
Ewaoluwa Ogundana was valedictorian of her Prince George’s High School and is now a graduate student in Maryland. (Courtesy of Ewaoluwa Ogundana)
“It’s not that they don’t want to go higher in their field,” she says. “There is literally a legal bar that stops them, so they can only stay in low-wage jobs.”
The 22-year-old, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Maryland, wrote a blog post several months ago that identified a workforce barrier that has been holding back many undocumented immigrants and limiting ambition at a time when critical fields are experiencing worker shortages. What has happened since that post published is something she hoped to see but didn’t expect to — at least not so soon.
“Would you believe me if I told you this blog post gained some traction amongst #Maryland legislators and now two bills are being introduced this session…,” she tweeted on Feb. 7.
In her blog post for New America, where she was interning, Ogundana credited Maryland with helping undocumented immigrants get a higher education. She noted that the state allows immigrants to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities and it gives them the chance to attend local community colleges free. But then, she wrote, it limits them “from fully benefiting from their higher education credentials.”
“Case in point,” she wrote, “Maryland bars undocumented students from obtaining professional licenses.”
“Almost one in four jobs require some sort of license to practice in the U.S., and in Maryland almost 40% of the population hold jobs that require occupational licenses,” Ogundana wrote. “It is inconsistent to limit specific licenses from undocumented students if the actual operation of that profession does not require citizenship.”
Maryland is not the only state to have that ban in place, but now it has the chance to join five other states that have removed it. This week, the Maryland Senate and House were scheduled to hold hearings on legislation that, if passed, would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain professional and occupational licenses. Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) and Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) worked together to introduce the bills.
She said that many people in favor of the legislation have stepped forward to share their perspectives and that the Maryland Hospital Association has talked about having nearly 4,000 vacancies.
When I spoke with Peña-Melnyk about the legislation, she ticked off the jobs that require licenses. The list stretched long. Among those mentioned: accountants, architects, counselors, dental hygienists, court reporters, locksmiths, morticians, midwives, plumbers and therapists.
On the morning we talk, Ogundana shares with me the story of an aspiring cardiologist she knows. That student planned to go through an electrocardiography program at Prince George’s Community College in hopes of getting an EKG license and eventually attending medical school. But because she’s undocumented, that license remains out of reach — at least, for now.
“Unless someone is completely anti-immigrant, this bill helps the entire state,” Ogundana says. “This legislation is going to be impactful for many generations to come. … It also helps a community that has faced so many struggles.”
After qualifying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an immigration status that offers some protections to people who were brought to the United States as children, she was given a scholarship through TheDream.US to attend Trinity Washington University. Following her graduation, she interned for New America and is now pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Maryland at College Park.
Because she is a DACA recipient, the limitations she is fighting to remove for immigrants do not directly affect her situation. But they could if the application she has to file every two years is at any point denied or the program eliminated. Those limitations also affect her friends, her neighbors and her family members. Her younger brother, who was 1 when the family left Nigeria, applied for DACA but the processing of his paperwork was put on hold under the Trump administration and is now sitting in a backlog.
When I ask Ogundana what she hopes to do after she gets her master’s degree, she says she hasn’t chosen a job title but she has picked a path. She wants to work in a position that will allow her to make policy recommendations.
That career choice, fortunately, doesn’t require a license.