Op-ed: Want To Help Immigrants? Reform Occupational Licensing Restrictions

Latinos are quickly becoming a large portion of the American electorate, and issues that are important to them will be a big part of 2020 election strategies. A major element of that outreach strategy will be how candidates handle immigration.

But an unlikely immigration issue is actually a collection of state policies that hold immigrants back — occupational licensing. These laws regulate who can work in certain professions and even though the moderators at the debate asked several questions about how federal candidates would improve the lives of immigrants state policymakers can do a lot as well.

A new research paper published by the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University looks specifically at how licensing laws affect immigrants, and the results are intimidating. The study found that immigrants are 34 percent less likely to obtain government licenses than natives.

There are multiple reasons that this could be the case. Many tests required to become licensed are only available in English, which puts those who speak English as a second language at a disadvantage. Some states require that licensees be U.S. citizens, as Massachusetts does for funeral directors. These rules bar even legal immigrants from those occupations, even if they worked in them before they came to the U.S.

At the root of all of these problems is the fact that licensing is a barrier to employment. Researchers call it, “skill wastage” because people who have skills to work in an area are barred from doing so.

Imagine an Australian electrician who moves to the U.S. There should certainly be checks that she knows about differences between the electrical practices of the U.S. and “down under,” but the authors of the study find that many highly educated and skilled immigrants don’t pursue licensing because of the costs of obtaining a license in the U.S.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.