Free Market

Is Citizenship Another Barrier Attached to Occupational Licensing?

The birthplace of a person bears little to no relationship on that individual’s ability to dutifully carry out the requirements of various professional roles. Yet for years, many states have utilized citizen status as a barrier to keep individuals from obtaining state-mandated occupational licenses. 

In particular, around forty states have, at some point, prevented non-citizens and others without permanent resident status from receiving a law license. In these states, applicants seeking to become attorneys and receive their law license needed to provide proof of citizenship, permanent resident status, or work authorization in order to be considered for licensure.

However, this expansive barrier is now being recognized as being largely arbitrary. One of these states, New Mexico, is taking action to undo this restriction and make its licensing process more grounded in fairness. 

Starting on October 1, the state of New Mexico will no longer have the ability to reject license applications from those hoping to practice law within the state only because of an applicant’s citizenship or immigration status. 

This rule change still provides the state’s legal system the ability to ensure its legal practitioners are well trained and qualified to provide exceptional legal counsel. Every applicant wanting to obtain a law license is still required to graduate from law school, pass the bar exam, and pass some form of a character and fitness review.

For many, this policy change has been received with excitement and a sense of relief. 

Jazmin Irazoqui-Ruiz, an attorney at the New Mexico Immigration Law Center, was the first DACA recipient in New Mexico to be granted a law license via a work authorization. For Jazmin, this change will make a difference for individuals in a position similar to the one she was in, as this change will lessen the burdensome process of receiving a law license for many New Mexicans who may not be citizens of the United States. 

The benefits of this shift in licensing expand past simple regulation reduction. This shift in law will further let New Mexicans rely on the state’s large immigrant community to decrease a long list of court cases that have created a backlog within the state’s justice system. As more legal professionals enter the workforce, wait times for cases decrease and justice can be more quickly served. By further molding an economy based on fairness, New Mexico is taking the proper steps to expand economic opportunity to larger bases of its community.

Utah also deserves praise for a similar rule change, handed down by the state’s Supreme Court in 2020, which does not allow the state’s DACA recipients to be denied a law license based only on the fact they are a DACA recipient.

Ultimately, the antiquated idea that an occupational license should be withheld based on one’s citizenship highlights the arbitrary nature of many requirements associated with occupational licensing. This issue demonstrates how states can and should continue to look for simple solutions to further expand access and freedom to the labor market.