This post has been updated since its original publication.
A bill that would allow the Arkansas State Board of Nursing to grant licenses to recipients of DACA passed out of the House Public Health committee on a voice vote Thursday morning.
House Bill 1552, sponsored by Rep. Megan Godfrey (D-Springdale), now heads to the full House for a vote. The governor’s office and the state nursing board support the bill, Godfrey said. Autumn Tolbert spoke with the freshman representative about HB 1552 earlier this week.
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“Our state is really desperate for nurses,” Godfrey said. “Seventy-three of the 75 counties here in Arkansas are listed as medically underserved because of the lack of health care workers.”
DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was the result of an executive order by President Obama that assists young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, a group sometimes called “Dreamers.” These immigrants typically have no means of gaining legal status under current federal law. DACA shields some 700,000 people from the threat of deportation and permits them to work legally in the U.S.; several thousand live in Arkansas. In Sept. 2017, the Trump administration announced it was ending DACA, but the program remains in limbo due to multiple lawsuits.
Though DACA recipients are granted work permits, some professions requiring certification or licensure may not recognize the quasi-status granted by DACA. In late 2017, the state nursing board stopped allowing DACA recipients to sit for licensing exams in Arkansas out of concern they may be ineligible.
Rosa Ruvalcaba Serna, a nursing student at UAMS, presented the bill alongside Godfrey. Ruvalcaba Serna, 25, said her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was 6 “to provide me with a better future and a wonderful education that just would not be possible for me to have in Mexico.”
She entered first grade in Oklahoma “without knowing a single word of English,” she said, but by 4th grade no longer required English as a second language (ESL) instruction. When she graduated high school in Arkansas, she said, she was accepted to UCA, then discovered she could not afford to attend; her undocumented status meant she did not qualify for in-state tuition rates.
Ruvalcaba Serna said she attended community college while working full time, then applied to nursing school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. In October 2017, she said, she received the news that she could not sit for the NCLEX, the exam required for RN licensure.
“UAMS offered a full refund if I wanted to withdraw, as this licensure issue was also news to them,” she said. Instead, she began advocating for a change in policy.
Rep. Justin Boyd (R-Fort Smith) asked whether DACA recipients employed in Arkansas pay Medicare and Social Security taxes. Ruvalcaba Serna said they do. “All the jobs I’ve had, I’ve paid taxes, both federal and state,” she said.
Rep. John Payton (R-Wilburn), a conservative Republican and a co-sponsor of the bill, thanked Ruvacalba Serna. Payton said he was surprised to discover DACA recipients couldn’t receive a nursing license. “I had no idea we had a roadblock for somebody that, of no volition of their own, came here,” he said.
“While I don’t appreciate what your parents did in coming here without permission, I do not want to hold that against you in any way, or let that affect your career or take away or diminish from your hard work … and I look forward to you being a nurse in Arkansas,” Payton said.
No one testified against the bill. Three people testified in support, including another would-be nurse, Zulually Guerrero of De Queen. Guerrero, 21, said she was born with a physical disability that required multiple surgeries and hospital stays when she was a child. That led her to develop a love or nursing, Guerrero said.
“Ever since I graduated high school, I had a dream of one day working in Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where I spent most of my time,” Guerrero said. Being undocumented, she’s also ineligible for in-state college tuition in Arkansas, so she’s attending a university in Texas. She said she hopes to attend a nursing program in Arkansas.
In closing for the bill, Godfrey said she was “thrilled” about the committee’s willingness to “put partisanship aside and solve a problem in a way that’s a win-win for everybody involved.” HB 1552 passed on a voice vote with no dissent.