OMAHA, Neb. — Dania Cervantes Ayala is the kind of nurse you want when you receive a life-changing diagnosis. It’s not a task for her, it feels personal. She cares for patients at her part-time job at the Nebraska Medicine’s Buffett Cancer Center with both sharp knowledge and deep compassion — traits of a skilled third-year nursing student at the College of Saint Mary who will soon take the state’s nursing license exams and move on to a doctorate of nursing program.
She’s part of the future of nursing in eastern Nebraska. She was also brought to this country illegally in 2003 when she was 6 years old.
Up until two years ago, Cervantes Ayala, who is from Mexico, would not have been allowed to become a nurse in her state because of her immigration status. In Nebraska she, along with nearly 3,400 other “Dreamers” — named after the DREAM Act, which never passed in Congress — could not apply for or receive professional or commercial licenses. That changed with the enacting of a 2016 state law, and has since led to a wave of young people becoming lawyers, nurses, cosmetologists, accountants and dozens of other licensed professionals.
“I’m finally comfortable in my own skin,” said Cervantes Ayala, who often looks back on her parents’ perilous journey across the border. “It’s like everything that we have worked hard for is finally paying off. We’re out of the shadows.”
Nebraska is one of 10 states that allow certain immigrants — such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, legal immigrants and unauthorized immigrants — to apply for professional licenses, which often require Social Security numbers. In many of those states, the door is only open for specific professions, such as for teachers in Nevada and lawyers in Florida.
Last month, Indiana lawmakers enacted a law similar to Nebraska’s, becoming the latest state to give young undocumented immigrants a chance at an advanced career in a country they’ve always called home. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said the state’s DACA recipients should be allowed “to skill up and work here in Indiana.”
Nebraska, like Indiana, is a conservative state. But the debate two years ago defied partisan norms on immigration and already has had an impact on DACA recipients.
The Long Fight in Nebraska
Alejandra Ayotitla’s voice still quivers when the Dreamer, who crossed the Mexican border as a 9-year-old in 2004, thinks back to the moment Nebraska enacted a law that would allow her to one day pursue a legal career.
A week before the measure became law in 2016, Pete Ricketts, the state’s Republican governor, vetoed the bill supported overwhelmingly by lawmakers of his own party, citing a concern it was unfair to immigrants who came to the country legally. The chamber of the unicameral Legislature was silent as senators cast the final vote to override the governor’s veto.
When the votes were in, the bill had 31 supporters — one more than was needed to override the veto. As someone in the chamber gallery full of Dreamers erupted in applause, most of the senators turned, stood up and returned applause back to the dozens of young people they had gotten to know over the many years it took to get to this moment.
“It was really powerful,” Ayotitla said. “I have no words to describe it.”
The enthusiastic passage of the Nebraska law that gave undocumented immigrants with work authorization, including DACA recipients, a chance at getting professional licenses is a far cry from some of the anti-immigrant measures state leaders enacted just seven years earlier.
In 2009, the state enacted a law that took away many public benefits, including professional, commercial and driver’s licenses, from undocumented immigrants. Then-Gov. Dave Heineman said the law would ensure “that state and local benefits go to those who truly qualify.”
Three years later, Heineman, a Republican, spoke vehemently against the Obama administration’s DACA program, which allowed those who were brought to the country illegally as children to work legally, while members of the Legislature tried to pass an Arizona-style “show me your papers” bill.
But as that was happening, support for changes to immigration policy was building in the state — not just among activists, but also among business leaders.
Dreamers Won the Argument
That support continues. Nebraska needs workers, said Jennifer Creager, the senior director of public policy for the Greater Omaha Chamber, in an interview. Like many rural states, Nebraska is exporting too many of its young people to sustain a statewide workforce, she said. With an unemployment rate of 2.8 percent and some 50,000 job openings across the state, immigration is a “pure workforce issue” for Creager and other business people. The new law could allow more Nebraska Dreamers to help fill the gap.
“It makes absolutely no sense to educate kids here, to put state resources into them with public schools and higher education, to basically train them to work, and then say we don’t want them to work here or pay taxes here,” she said. “Not only do we want you. We need you.”
Those same economic arguments are what drove business leaders such as Jim Partington, the executive director of the Nebraska Restaurant Association, to form a coalition to study immigration in Nebraska, a state with an aging and declining population. Between 2011 and 2015, nearly 12,000 Nebraskans 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree were leaving the state every year. Meanwhile, Nebraskans 65 and older are expected to increase by 75 percent between 2010 and 2030, according to the AARP.
The restaurant group, along with the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association and other industry groups, soon became some of the loudest voices pushing the state Legislature to remove barriers for immigrants in state law. Those barriers, such as being the last state in the country to not allow DACA recipients to receive driver’s licenses, were in direct conflict with state officials’ economic goals, Partington said. (The Legislature gave DACA recipients the ability to get driver’s licenses after overriding a Ricketts veto in 2015.)
“I don’t think you can meet these people and then take a position that we want to deport them,” Partington said. “They’re so valuable to have here. They’re teachers. They’re accountants. Some of them are studying to become lawyers. They’ve got a great future ahead of them.”
Ultimately, it was meeting students such as Ayotitla that inspired lawmakers to make a final push, said Darcy Tromanhauser, the director of the immigrants and communities program at Nebraska Appleseed, a Lincoln-based advocacy group. Many of the DACA recipients grew up in small, rural communities across the state, such as the majority-Latino towns of Schuyler and Lexington, and the young people wanted to give back and become the next generation of skilled professionals in those areas.
“Senators felt like they got to know youth, and care personally,” Tromanhauser said. “There’s a lot more community support that is playing out that is wildly different than the national dialogue would make you think.”
Since the law was enacted, advocates at Nebraska Appleseed said they are unaware of any snags in its implementation, and they have not heard of any applicants being denied because of their status as DACA recipients. Administrative offices across the state were prepped and ready for new DACA applicants the day after the policy went into effect, Tromanhauser said.
Officials at the Nebraska Department of Labor said they do not track the number of DACA recipients who have applied for professional and commercial licenses. To be sure, Tromanhauser and other advocates said there is no easy way of measuring how many DACA recipients have taken advantage of the new policy, but countless stories of Dreamers applying for new licenses continue to pour into their offices.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, across the country, 9,000 DACA recipients are teachers, 14,000 are health care practitioners and in health care support roles, and 2,200 are financial specialists — roles that may require the Dreamers to hold a professional license.
In New York, one of the states that allows teachers to receive certifications, around 700 DACA recipients are in the education field, according to MPI.
Many more DACA recipients are studying to become skilled workers. Almost 17 percent of DACA recipients are pursuing an advanced degree, according to a 2015 survey by the National Immigration Law Center and the Center for American Progress. Further, more than 50 medical schools now consider applications from DACA recipients nationwide, according to the law center.
Ayotitla even decided to change her career path from becoming a school psychologist to becoming a lawyer because of this fight. She starts at the Nebraska College of Law in the fall.
Confusion Around DACA
More than 80 state organizations and local leaders — from chambers of commerce to mayors — have publicly supported the deferred action program since the license law was enacted, said Omaid Zabih, the federal policy director at Nebraska Appleseed. Just after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, the state Legislature passed a resolution in support of the program.
“I look at it as one very powerful moment in an ongoing movement,” Zabih said of the license law. “That didn’t happen in a vacuum. It built momentum for what we want, which is common sense immigration reform.”
Ricketts, however, has publicly agreed with Trump’s decision to end the “unconstitutional” program.
Still, Washington’s confusion over whether DACA recipients, who have only temporary protection from deportation, have a future in the country, including congressional inaction, remains a worry for young Nebraskans like Armando Becerril.
Becerril came to the country flying through the air. When he and his family got to a fence at the U.S. border in 1997 in the pouring rain, soaked and muddy with only the clothes on their backs, his uncle threw the then-4-year-old over the barrier into California. His mother, father and uncle hopped the fence too.
Over the next two decades, Becerril and his family settled in and created a life here. When people ask him where he’s from, he always says York, Nebraska — the town of 8,000 where his father worked as a meatpacker. Growing up, he excelled at school, and numbers especially came naturally to him. “They were my thing,” he said.
When college rolled around, Becerril received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in accounting at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He still doesn’t miss a Husker football game.
Now working at the Omaha office of prestigious international tax and auditing firm KPMG, the DACA recipient is six months away from finishing his certified public accountant exams. Two years ago, he couldn’t have become a CPA in Nebraska.
But he may soon lose his protected status, as Congress and Trump have failed to come to an agreement on the program that expired in March, but has continued indefinitely while a federal court considers its legality.
“I don’t know how things are going to unfold with DACA,” he said. “We’re talking about everything I worked for for years. It could have been a waste.”
Unlike other DACA recipients in Nebraska, however, Becerril has options. His firm, knowing his status, has offered to employ him in the company’s Mexico City office if he is deported. He says he’s luckier than most. But he still wants to live in his home state.
“We’re positive, contributing members of this society,” Becerril said. “If we’re forced to leave, this country is going to lose a lot more than if they provide us this opportunity that we earned.”