The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Young undocumented immigrants in Maryland can’t grow up to be whatever they want. This graduate student is trying to change that.

Ewaoluwa Ogundana, a 22-year-old DACA recipient, wrote a blog post about a workforce barrier that’s holding many undocumented immigrants back. Now, lawmakers are taking action.

Ewaoluwa Ogundana was valedictorian of her Prince George's High School and is now a graduate student in Maryland. (Courtesy of Ewaoluwa Ogundana)
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There are glass ceilings that force some people to work harder and longer to reach top jobs within their fields. And then there are steel ceilings, ones that are not penetrable, no matter what skills, education or work ethic a person brings. No amount of striving gets a person past those because they are fortified with laws and policies.

Those are the kind Ewaoluwa Ogundana is telling me about on a recent morning.

“It’s not that they don’t want to go higher in their field,” she says. “There is literally a legal bar that stops them, so they can only stay in low-wage jobs.”

The 22-year-old, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Maryland, wrote a blog post several months ago that identified a workforce barrier that has been holding back many undocumented immigrants and limiting ambition at a time when critical fields are experiencing worker shortages. What has happened since that post published is something she hoped to see but didn’t expect to — at least not so soon.

“Would you believe me if I told you this blog post gained some traction amongst #Maryland legislators and now two bills are being introduced this session…,” she tweeted on Feb. 7.

In her blog post for New America, where she was interning, Ogundana credited Maryland with helping undocumented immigrants get a higher education. She noted that the state allows immigrants to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities and it gives them the chance to attend local community colleges free. But then, she wrote, it limits them “from fully benefiting from their higher education credentials.”

“Case in point,” she wrote, “Maryland bars undocumented students from obtaining professional licenses.”

What that means is a child who was brought to this country and raised in Maryland might get asked what they want to be when they grow up, and then grow up and realize they are banned from getting the licenses needed to do those jobs. They can’t become licensed nurses, accountants or dental hygienists. They can’t become licensed veterinarians, educators or beauticians.

“Almost one in four jobs require some sort of license to practice in the U.S., and in Maryland almost 40% of the population hold jobs that require occupational licenses,” Ogundana wrote. “It is inconsistent to limit specific licenses from undocumented students if the actual operation of that profession does not require citizenship.”

Maryland is not the only state to have that ban in place, but now it has the chance to join five other states that have removed it. This week, the Maryland Senate and House were scheduled to hold hearings on legislation that, if passed, would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain professional and occupational licenses. Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery) and Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s) worked together to introduce the bills.

“There is a crisis right now in our labor shortage and we have a possible solution, while helping students who have worked really hard, gotten a good education and are ready to serve in these licensed occupations,” Kagan said.

She said that many people in favor of the legislation have stepped forward to share their perspectives and that the Maryland Hospital Association has talked about having nearly 4,000 vacancies.

When I spoke with Peña-Melnyk about the legislation, she ticked off the jobs that require licenses. The list stretched long. Among those mentioned: accountants, architects, counselors, dental hygienists, court reporters, locksmiths, morticians, midwives, plumbers and therapists.

“It’s simply the right thing to do, especially given the work shortage that we have,” she said of the legislation. “It shouldn’t matter what your legal status is. What matters is that you’re able to do the job and that you’re qualified. And we definitely need all hands on deck.”

On the morning we talk, Ogundana shares with me the story of an aspiring cardiologist she knows. That student planned to go through an electrocardiography program at Prince George’s Community College in hopes of getting an EKG license and eventually attending medical school. But because she’s undocumented, that license remains out of reach — at least, for now.

“Unless someone is completely anti-immigrant, this bill helps the entire state,” Ogundana says. “This legislation is going to be impactful for many generations to come. … It also helps a community that has faced so many struggles.”

Ogundana graduated as the valedictorian of her Prince George’s County high school and says it wasn’t until her senior year, when she started applying to colleges, that she realized what it meant to be undocumented in this country. She was 4 when her family overstayed a visa and settled in Maryland. Throughout her schooling, she had been encouraged to strive and excel. But then she found herself rejected from colleges that asked for paperwork she couldn’t provide and accepted to colleges that wanted to list her as an international student, which comes with a high tuition cost.

After qualifying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an immigration status that offers some protections to people who were brought to the United States as children, she was given a scholarship through TheDream.US to attend Trinity Washington University. Following her graduation, she interned for New America and is now pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Maryland at College Park.

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Because she is a DACA recipient, the limitations she is fighting to remove for immigrants do not directly affect her situation. But they could if the application she has to file every two years is at any point denied or the program eliminated. Those limitations also affect her friends, her neighbors and her family members. Her younger brother, who was 1 when the family left Nigeria, applied for DACA but the processing of his paperwork was put on hold under the Trump administration and is now sitting in a backlog.

“His application has been in the system for five years,” she says. “So he hasn’t been able to reap the same benefits as me.”

When I ask Ogundana what she hopes to do after she gets her master’s degree, she says she hasn’t chosen a job title but she has picked a path. She wants to work in a position that will allow her to make policy recommendations.

That career choice, fortunately, doesn’t require a license.

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