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Proposed bills would help Wisconsin DACA recipients get through college, enter workforce

An immigrant reads a guide of the conditions needed to apply for DACA protection.
File Photo
Many DACA recipients are used to navigating bureaucracy.

A group of bipartisan bills aims to help DACA recipients pursue higher education and enter the workforce.

Through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, designed for some immigrants who came to the country as children, recipients are protected from deportation and can work legally. But there are barriers to their schooling and employment in Wisconsin, home to some 5,800 “DACAmented” individuals, from having to pay out-of-state tuition to not being eligible for certain professional licenses.

Rep. John Macco, R-Ledgeview, co-sponsored the package with Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, D-Milwaukee. He said easing those barriers will relieve the state’s workforce shortage, in fields such as teaching and nursing.

“DACA recipients are here,” Macco said in a December briefing. “What is the state of Wisconsin going to do about it? It’s time to get out of their way and let them get educated and contribute to their workforce.”

The first bill would allow DACA recipients to apply for professional licenses to work in jobs like nursing, engineering, and teaching, while a similar bill would allow recipients to become police officers. Another would grant DACA recipients in-state tuition. Currently, they must pay out-of-state rates, no matter how long they’ve been living in the state. The last bill would provide a tax credit to offset the steep $495 fee that recipients pay every two years to renew their status.

According to the research group Higher Ed Immigration Portal, 24 states and the District of Columbia grant DACA recipients in-state tuition, while 19 states provide DACA recipients with at least some access to professional licenses.

The proposed bills are moving to the state Senate, but with the legislative session ending on Feb. 22, the clock is ticking.

two Latina women with long dark hair stand next to each other, hugging and smiling. the younger woman on the left is wearing navy blue scrubs
Courtesy of Elizabeth Roman
Elizabeth Roman (right) and her mother, on her first day of nursing school.

I spoke with Elizabeth Roman, a 27-year-old DACA recipient currently pursuing her associate’s degree in nursing at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau. Roman was five years old when she came to the United States from Guerrero, Mexico, first living in Arizona before settling in Wausau almost 20 years ago.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

How are you liking nursing school? 

It's a lot of work, but I love it. I've always wanted to be in a field where I could impact somebody's life positively. I am currently a certified nursing assistant. And I just love what I do, so I wanted to enhance my education.

In my first semester, I got to work with my geriatric patients, and it was great. Now I'm in my second semester, and I get to work in a hospital. I just keep loving and learning nursing [more]. I just know that this was the right path for me to take.

You’re a DACA recipient. When did you learn you couldn’t get your professional nursing license in Wisconsin? 

I didn't know when I got into nursing school. A couple months ago, Tony [Gonzalez, of the American Hispanic Association] called me. He [asked] if I knew that DACA recipients couldn't hold a nursing license in Wisconsin. I was so confused. I was like, “What are you talking about? I got into school, I’m doing it.”

That was shocking to me. My whole plan was to graduate from the Tech, hopefully apply to a university in Wisconsin and get my bachelor's. But now that plan is up in the air. Because I don't know what's going to happen, whether they're gonna pass this, or whether I have to look [at] other places.

A federal program that prevents undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from being deported could soon end.

What are you thinking? You’re looking at neighboring states? 

The plan is going to be to get my associate’s and maybe move to a compact state that allows me to have a license there. And then do the traveling [nurse] path. I'm looking to see which states are nearby where I can still be close to my family. But I'm hoping and I'm praying I can stay here in Wisconsin.

That's a lot on your shoulders. You mentioned your family — can you tell me more about them? 

I come from a family of six brothers and three sisters. I’m the fourth. Basically all my family members are living in Wisconsin, in Wausau. I do have two brothers who live in Chicago. But other than that, everybody else lives here. We’re a really united family. So it's hard for me. I always grew up near my family. It's sad that I may not have that possibility to pursue my dream here.

Do you have any other friends in this situation?

I do have a few friends who are at the Tech with me in the same situation. They also didn't know about that.

I have a friend who wants to be a dental hygienist. He was just talking to me about it a couple days ago. I was like, “Hey, how’s school, how are you doing?” And he's like, “Oh, I'm not doing it anymore. What for? I’m not going to be able to hold a license in Wisconsin. It’s not worth it. All that money, for what?”

That's another thing. DACA recipients don't get financial aid. We have to work and pay for school on top of trying to stay on top of school. Hearing that broke my heart. He’s such a great guy. He's really smart, and he has so much passion for what he does. So I was like, “Things are gonna happen, don't give up on your dream, keep pursuing it, keep going. We’re going to find a way to get through this.”


Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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