Diana Velandia was eight when she and her mother came to Long Island from Colombia and overstayed their tourist visas. She grew up attending schools in Brentwood, speaking English and considering herself an American.

But her lack of legal status made her hopes of becoming a licensed physician assistant seem unattainable.

“Sometimes I would just ponder and think, ‘Should I even go to school for this?’ ” said Velandia, 24, a student at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood.

The answer for her could soon be yes.

The Board of Regents, which sets the state’s educational policy, is expected to approve regulations in May that would allow immigrants like Velandia — exempt from deportation — to obtain licensing and certification after they complete required courses in teaching or any other of 53 professions.

Opponents say the proposed regulations would give those who arrived in the United States illegally an unfair advantage over Americans vying for the same high-paying jobs, while supporters see them as a life-changer for immigrants authorized to work in the country.

“These are young people who came to the U.S. as children,” said a statement from MaryEllen Elia, New York’s education commissioner. “They are American in every way but immigration status. They’ve done everything right. They’ve worked hard in school, some have even served in the military, but when it’s time to apply for a license, they’re told ‘Stop. That’s far enough.’ We shouldn’t close the door on their dreams.”

Anthony Martinez, a 17-year-old straight-A senior at Hempstead High School...

Anthony Martinez, a 17-year-old straight-A senior at Hempstead High School and undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, said he dreams of being a doctor and hopes that New York state will allow licensing of medical professionals regardless of immigration status. Credit: Chuck Fadely

The Regents voted unanimously last month to adopt the regulations, which, if given final approval in May, would take effect June 1. A notice of the draft rules will be published Wednesday and will be open to public comment until April 25.

The move would give immigrants in the United States under “protected status,” or who qualified for the “deferred action” granted in 2012 by President Barack Obama, access to a wide range of professions requiring licensing, including medicine, teaching and acupuncture.

Final approval would most likely benefit young immigrants known as “Dreamers” — brought to the country when they were minors — by opening up the prospect of careers that have been out of reach. For most, there is no way to obtain legal residency even if they’ve lived most of their lives in the country.

The proposal would affect graduates who meet the description of “otherwise qualified aliens who are not unlawfully present in the U.S. and meet all other licensure requirements except citizenship.”

A New York Appellate Division last year allowed the state to set licensing regulations after ruling in the case of an immigrant who came to the country illegally and sought to become a lawyer. The Regents’ proposed amendment stemmed in part from the June 2015 appellate ruling permitting Cesar Vargas, a Mexican immigrant in Staten Island, to become an attorney.

Vargas’ lead lawyer on the appellate case, Jose Perez, said adopting the regulations is the next logical step to help those who weathered rigorous academic demands assist others in need.

“If they were able to get into school and graduate and meet requirements for certification or pass the bar exam, and fulfill all these criteria,” said Perez, also the associate general counsel for the advocacy group, LatinoJustice, “aren’t these the type of professions where we want folks to give back and serve and empower their communities?”

California and Florida also allow noncitizens without status to become lawyers. The California legislature passed a 2014 bill, which was broader in its reach than the New York Board of Regents proposal, allowing professional licenses for unauthorized immigrants who otherwise qualify.

Critics, like Assemb. Dean Murray, (R-East Patchogue), see the Regents’ proposal as an extension of lax enforcement of immigration laws. Murray said allowing immigrants who came here illegally to work in competitive licensed professions could hurt American workers while also sending the wrong message.

“We continue to chip away and chip away at immigration laws,” Murray said. “We continue to look for exceptions and things of this nature, and if we continue to give incentives to break the law, we are never going to have immigration reform.”

Murray said by continuing “to dangle these incentives ... then we are never going to stop the flow . . . of those coming here illegally.”

The proposed changes have had support from statewide groups representing the hospital industry and teacher unions.

A statement from the Healthcare Association of New York State said allowing the licensing of qualified immigrants “could help to alleviate the anticipated physician shortage.”

Carl Korn, a spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said “we’re supporting this” because “it doesn’t make sense to deny an otherwise fully qualified candidate a teaching license merely because they can’t check the box that says ‘citizen.’ ”

Immigrant advocates say recognizing the talent of immigrants would benefit everyone.

“There’s so much human capital within the immigrant community that is being held back,” said Walter Barrientos, an organizer with the advocacy group Make The Road New York in Brentwood. “We think this will unleash the potential of immigrants across the state to serve the communities where they live.”

Velandia and others say unattainable licensing requirements were discouraging but now they see a potential payoff for all their hard work.

She’s pushed herself, Velandia said, inching toward a biology degree by taking the few classes she can afford per semester, paid with wages from her job as a secretary. She’s bracing for the cost of a four-year program because she doesn’t qualify for financial aid, but her vision of a career seems achievable.

“I want it badly,” Velandia said. “I’ve always loved medicine and helping people. . . . This is my dream, my goal, and I have to do it.”

The licensing change would come in time for Anthony Martínez, 17, a Hempstead High School senior who crossed the border with his parents and a sister about 10 years ago.

Martínez, a native of El Salvador, said he’s worked hard to excel, putting his faith in prayer and education. He wants to be an emergency room doctor.

He’s nearing graduation with a 95.06 grade-point average. He said he has “applied to, like, 30 colleges.” The City College of New York has accepted him so far.

“I really, really want to go to college,” Martínez said. “It’s a big relief to know that with all the work that you are putting in, that you are going to have a shot.”

Who knows, he said, someday he might save a citizen’s life.

Licenses for noncitizens

-In June 2015, the state’s Appellate Division, Second Department, ruled in favor of the state deciding on its licensing regulations, as opposed to following a federal edict barring unauthorized immigrants, clearing the way for Cesar Vargas, a Mexican immigrant in Staten Island, to be admitted to the bar in Feb. 2016.

-A Feb. 16 memorandum from the New York State Department of Education cited the Vargas case and other precedents in proposing that the Board of Regents use its authority “to promulgate regulations expressly authorizing otherwise qualified aliens who are not unlawfully present in the U.S. and who meet all other licensure requirements except citizenship to become licensed or certified” in the state.

-The Board of Regents will consider the proposal at its May meeting. If approved, the change would take effect June 1.

-It’s not known how many immigrants could benefit from the amended regulations, but, if approved, they will be able to seek teaching certification and licensing in 53 professional fields, including architecture, dentistry, massage therapy, medicine, nursing, social work and public accountancy.

Source: New York Education Department

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