New Arkansas laws remove barriers for immigrants, despite legislature’s rightward turn

FUTURE TEACHER: Jennifer Carmona on the UA - Little Rock campus (Credit: Matt White)

A new state law will soon open the door to almost any career path for some groups of immigrants, marking the latest in a remarkable series of legislative victories for Arkansas’s immigrant community.

Act 746, formerly HB 1735, will allow the state’s nearly 5,000 DACA recipients and other immigrants with work permits to obtain any professional or occupational license in Arkansas. The federal DACA program, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, covers immigrants who were brought to the United States, without authorization, as children. DACA allows these individuals — a group sometimes called “Dreamers” — to stay in the country free from the threat of deportation if they meet certain qualifications. Although DACA recipients are eligible for federal work permits, requirements at the state level have sometimes prevented them from becoming licensed in specific professional fields.

The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Clint Penzo (R-Springdale) and state Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs), received overwhelming bipartisan support. It passed the House of Representatives 88-3 and the Senate 34-1; both chambers are controlled by large Republican supermajorities. It takes effect July 1.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the passage of the law across party lines “was a big victory for the young people who are talented and ready to build their future in our great state.

“The passing of this law was a special moment in Arkansas history,” he said in an email. “All of Arkansas benefits.”

Jennifer Carmona, 20, is a DACA recipient and University of Arkansas at Little Rock sophomore who will benefit from the change. “I will now be allowed to get my teaching license, which is wonderful because I've always dreamed of being a teacher. Even when I was little,” she said. 

Carmona’s parents brought her from Mexico to the U.S. when she was 4 years old. She said she wants to teach in underserved communities, ideally in Southwest Little Rock. But until recently, that wasn’t a real option.

“I really did not want to leave Arkansas because I grew up here in Southwest Little Rock, and I know that they need the most help, and that's where I want to serve,” Carmona said. “But I know a lot of students in my situation did have to move to Texas and surrounding states.”

When she heard that legislation had been introduced that would allow her to teach in Arkansas, she said, “I literally broke down in tears.” She was one of several DACA recipients who testified at the Capitol this spring.

Former President Barack Obama established DACA by executive memorandum in 2012. The policy temporarily shields recipients from deportation and makes them eligible for work permits, but it does not provide them with a pathway to citizenship or legal residency. Doing so would require new federal legislation, which congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked. In March, Democrats and a handful of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would create such a pathway for DACA recipients and millions of others, but it is unlikely to overcome Republican opposition in the Senate.

Former President Donald Trump attempted to end DACA in 2017, but federal courts put that effort on hold because of procedural issues. President Biden supports DACA. However, a group of nine Republican-controlled states is now challenging the constitutionality of the policy in federal court. One of them is Arkansas, represented by state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge.

While the Republican attorney general is suing to end DACA, Republican state legislators (joined by Democrats) passed a raft of new laws that will benefit DACA recipients. Act 746 builds on the success of recent legislation that allowed DACA recipients to receive nursing and teaching licenses. Rather than continuing to pass individual bills addressing specific fields of work, however, lawmakers crafted a blanket measure to cover all licensed professions. Act 746 allows these Arkansans to pursue careers in medicine, law, construction, veterinary medicine, agriculture and more.

The legislature has also passed a collection of bills that expand educational opportunities for immigrants. A 2019 law secured in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities for DACA recipients and other groups of immigrants. This spring, legislators passed laws giving students who are covered by DACA access to most state scholarships and allowing public K-12 schools to implement bilingual or dual-immersion education programs.

Mireya Reith, the founding executive director of Arkansas United, an advocacy group, said Arkansas emerged from this session with some of the most immigrant-friendly professional licensure laws in the country. “This was 10 years in the making,” she said. “It was our most successful session yet.”

The success of immigrant advocates’ legislative agenda is perhaps surprising given the slew of hot-button conservative bills passed during the same session. Republican legislators approved several measures aimed at transgender people, including a first-in-the-nation ban on gender-affirming medical care for minors. They passed new election laws that Democrats say will restrict voting rights and suppress the vote among people of color. And the legislature rejected a proposed hate crime bill that was supported by Gov. Hutchinson, even though Arkansas is one of only three states lacking such a law.

Reith said lawmakers embraced Act 746 and related bills because they grew to see them as “workforce issues” rather than immigration issues.

“That, all of a sudden, completely changed the dynamics. Sponsors came to us. Bipartisanship was so much easier this session than previous,” she said.

Penzo, the lead sponsor of Act 746, said he was motivated both by the workforce argument and concern for DACA recipients.

“I want them to be able to succeed in a career that they are passionate about and improve their earning potential,” he said. “Arkansas has seen workforce shortages in several of the fields addressed, including health care. This will help fill these shortages with skilled professionals. I feel it is a win for everyone.” (Sen. Hester, the bill’s other sponsor, did not respond to requests for comment.)

Reith said many DACA recipients in Arkansas have shared Jennifer Carmona’s experience of being forced to choose between leaving the state and pursuing their chosen career. “Every single one of our DACA students who came and testified — across careers — said that ‘I want to fulfill my career here,’ ” she said.

Notably, most sponsors of immigrant-friendly bills in the last few years, on both sides of the aisle, have represented districts in Northwest Arkansas. The region is home to the largest Latino population in Arkansas, along with the headquarters of Walmart, Tyson and other major companies.

Dr. Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas - Fayetteville, said major employers looking for qualified workers have a significant influence on legislators, “even in otherwise immigrant-hostile states.

“These large employers and these large industries absolutely exert pressure on Republican legislators in particular. I can't think of more fertile soil for that dynamic than Northwest Arkansas.”

Parry also said the passage of immigrant-friendly laws in 2019 apparently didn’t hurt the re-election prospects of Republican legislators — and may have helped in some districts with sizable Latino or Asian populations.

“That's just straight up political calculus. They know there's going to be another election, there's going to be more redistricting. They see the writing on the wall in terms of the changing demographics in America, but in their own districts specifically,” she said.

Historically, Latino voters have tended to support Democrats, but Republicans may be making inroads. Though Latino voters as a whole supported Biden by wide margins in 2020, Trump gained ground among Latinos in places such as Miami-Dade County in Florida and the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.

Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, an immigration think tank in Washington, D.C., said that assisting DACA recipients may also help Republicans appear more moderate in the eyes of other voters. Polls show most Americans view DACA recipients sympathetically and believe they should be able to stay in the U.S. and contribute to their communities.

“There's benefits to supporting this type of legislation not only because of the reach to the Latino community, but because it is in line with the support of the general U.S. population. Independents who may disagree with Republicans on other issues — or even some Democrats — can find DACA and Dreamer legislation to be a bridge to consider supporting a Republican candidate,” he said.

Still, he added, Arkansas’s recent action on the licensure issue appeared to be “unique” among traditionally conservative states.

One of the driving forces behind recent pro-immigrant legislation is Rep. Megan Godfrey, a Springdale Democrat known for working across the aisle. Godfrey, who sponsored the 2019 bill allowing DACA recipients to attain nursing licenses, said she believed her Republican colleagues “were motivated by hearing from those young immigrants, which I think is exactly the way we should be leading.”

“I completely commend them,” Godfrey said. “I will say, too, that I think that the success of DACA nurses in 2019 translated into electoral success.”

Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado), the Senate’s only “no” vote on the bill that became Act 746, said the state “shouldn’t be encouraging illegal aliens to be here for any reason.

“I think that DACA was a terrible executive order, put in place by President Obama, that was legally suspect,” he said.

Garner said his objection to DACA prevented him from supporting any “extension of DACA,” and that immigration policy should be handled at the federal level (but not by executive order). But he attributed his fellow Republicans’ support for the bills to sympathy for the young people who testified at the Capitol.

“I think they could have a sincere understanding of those DACA recipients and the situation they’re in,” he said. “I can understand that as well, but the reality is, until a federal law actually passes that grants some kind of immigration status, I do not believe that we in Arkansas should be encouraging illegal immigration.”

Compelling personal stories can persuade legislators, Parry said, provided the conditions are right. This year, the party’s conservative base appeared to be more focused on issues such as trans rights and gun laws. Immigration was relegated to the back burner — exactly where it needed to be for advocates to make moves under the radar.

“It's not that immigration hasn't been on the national agenda and super-polarized, but it just isn't right now,” she said. “It'll flare up again.”

Legislators may also be more persuadable because Arkansas’s Latino population is relatively new and still fairly small. Immigration is “less of a do-or-die issue for Republicans in Arkansas” than those in states such as Texas and Arizona, she said.

“It’s not like abortion [is] here,” she said. “It’s more abstract. People just aren’t thinking about it as much.”

The status of immigration laws remains top-of-mind, however, for every member of the small but growing population of immigrants in Arkansas, especially those who are in the U.S. without authorization. DACA recipients often have parents or other loved ones who face the ever-present threat of deportation, a possibility that continues to loom large over everyday life.

Jennifer Carmona said she was conscious of that fact when she testified at the Capitol this spring. “It was terrifying, honestly,” she said. “I know that I'm putting not only myself, but my family, in the spotlight. There's always a thought in the back of my mind of, like, ‘What if something goes wrong? What's going to happen with my family?’

“Every day for us, it's like living in fear,” Carmona said. “Our parents could get pulled over and get arrested. And sometimes people don't even find out until days later, so their parents will be missing, or they'll end up without a parent because, for whatever reason, they get deported, and the whole family just gets torn apart. I feel like that's no way that anyone should live their lives — living in fear every single day.”

Carmona said she dreams of the possibility of federal action that would protect unauthorized parents as well as their children. 

"I hope that better things will come,” she said.

This story is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

The Arkansas Nonprofit News Network is an independent, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans. Our work is re-published by partner newsrooms across the state.