By Sol Ayala
Mayerly Soto, a sophomore social justice major, plans to pursue a career in social work after graduation. These plans have seemed just out of reach to Soto for some time, but due to a proposed state law passed by the Tennessee State Senate 20 to 7 on Thursday, March 14, Soto can look to the future with a bit more certainty.
On Tuesday, March 15, the hallways of the Cordell Hull Building were full of advocates as the Day on the Hill event organized by the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) introduced the Workforce Expansion Bill.
This bill is designed to allow people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to receive professional and commercial licenses.
“Over 7,000 DACA recipients and 3,000 TPS holders will benefit from this piece of legislation,” according to the TIRRC. “The Workforce Expansion Bill is a huge step in addressing ongoing labor shortages taking place in a wide variety of industries by allowing anyone with
a federally authorized work permit to access professional and occupational licenses, so long as they meet all other requirements of the respective licensing board.”
According to the American immigration council, as of March 2022 there are 7,650 DACA recipients and approximately 320,000 with a Temporary Protected Status living in Tennessee.
At Trevecca there are about 100 DACA students who can possibly benefit from the bill, said University President Dan Boone in a recent article for the Tennessean. Social workers, electricians, plumbers, engineers, and over 200 other professions would benefit from the bill, said Jazmin Ramirez, latinx community organizer at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
During the Day on the Hill event, members and volunteers of TIRRC had individual group meetings with Tennessee Senators and House Representatives, seeking their legislative vote against anti-immigrant bills and asking them to vote in favor of the Workforce Expansion Bill.
“Working while trying to stay concentrated and keep a GPA up seems almost impossible some days,” Soto said. “It can’t be impossible because this is literally the only way that this is going to work for me.”
Soto moved to Tennessee when she was 3 years old and has been under the DACA program since she was nine years old. She said having DACA status has made her life a bit easier.
To pay for college, Soto has to find outside resources, working two jobs and finding scholarships that support DACA recipients in higher education. As she approaches graduation, Soto’s future plans—and the plans of more than 10,000 TPS and DACA recipients—are at risk.
Current Tennessee law bars TPS and DACA recipients from obtaining professional and commercial licenses, despite being qualified in their professions, having federal work permits, and social security numbers.
DACA students can get a job, get a driver’s license and pay taxes, but have to overcome multiple obstacles to getting into higher education institutions, such as not receiving state and federal aid, not qualifying for in-state tuition and not being able to have professional licenses after getting a degree. This often forces DACA and TPS recipients to move out of state after graduation to other states that allow them to receive professional licenses.
Luis Mata, policy coordinator at TIRRC, says that the goal of the Day on the Hill event was to get the House representatives’ and Senators’ votes by bringing in TPS and DACA recipients to tell their stories and influence those in power to vote in favor of the Workforce Expansion Bill.
“Our Day on the Hill event was an opportunity to allow our members of the community to channel the power they have inside, and to be able to feel themselves creating change through their voices, through their stories,” Mata said.
The Workforce Expansion Bill has advanced in both the Senate and House. Is currently waiting for the votes from the floor chambers to see if it becomes part of state law.
There is still no date set for the vote, but it is expected to be during April.
“It personally affects me and people that I care about,” said Vanessa Delgado, program coordinator for Equal Change of Education.
TIRRC is also working against five anti-immigrant bills. Three out of the five bills were voted against, including bill HB1648 which would have allowed public K–12 schools to deny enrollment to children who are not lawfully documented in the U.S., and bill HB1919 which would have criminalized parents for taking children across state lines. TIRRC is still waiting for the results of the other two anti-immigrant bills.