TRENTON — Immigrant “Dreamers” who grew up in New Jersey but aren’t legal residents would be eligible to obtain professional and occupational licenses in the state under a bill advanced Thursday by Senate committee members of both parties.

The bill was amended to, in the words of a Senate Commerce Committee aide, apply not only to unauthorized immigrants but any eligible immigrant seeking to obtain a professional or occupational license in the state.

A small group of immigrants urged the committee to pass a bill that would go beyond immigrants who’ve been eligible for protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

“While this current legislation is a first step, we urge the committee to consider an occupational licenses bill that includes both DACA recipients and immigrants with work authorization as well as immigrants who do not have work authorization and immigrants who have lost work authorization,” said Erika Martinez, a Rutgers University student and youth leader for Make the Road New Jersey.

Martinez said 11 states provide unauthorized immigrants access to professional licenses and that some, such as California, do so regardless of whether they had work authorization

“Let’s be clear: This legislation does not provide work authorization. This is the job of the federal government. We are advocating for access to professional licenses to all New Jersey residents who have received and passed all required training. And we wouldn’t be the first,” Martinez said.

“New Jersey can and should be the next,” she said. “In fact, we should be leading the charge.”

Ana Calderon is a pre-med student at Rutgers University-Newark.

“That’s how I came to realize that many of the medical occupational licenses in New Jersey require proof of U.S. citizenship, and that’s why I’m here today,” Calderon said. “Because we have an opportunity to stand together and pass an occupational licenses bill that includes all of us.”

The introduced bill makes immigrants available for New Jersey professional and occupational licenses if they have an Employment Authorization Document Card (Form I-766) from the federal Department of Homeland Security and documentation from a federal agency showing that they are lawfully admitted for permanent or temporary residence in the United States.

Martinez said that just 16,500 of the more than 100,000 people in New Jersey who could be eligible under DACA are currently covered by the program, which was closed in 2017 and could be terminated, depending how the Supreme Court rules in a case heard in November.

The bill, S843, was passed in a bipartisan 5-0 vote by the Senate Commerce Committee.

“This is one of the more difficult votes I think I’ve had to make in my time in the Legislature,” said state Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen. “Because I understand from hearing many that these DACA kids are Americans. They’ve lived in America. That’s what they know. But our government, our federal government, has unfortunately left them worse off than they should have been.”

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Cardinale said Congress has failed for decades to address immigration and that President Barack Obama’s 2012 executive order creating DACA created more problems than it solved.

“And with some degree of reluctance, and having gotten that off my chest, I guess, I’m going to vote yes because I believe it’s the less bad alternative,” Cardinale said. “Not because I think that this is a great alternative, but it’s less bad than allowing this to continue to drift.”

The idea was first proposed in 2018 but went nowhere in that legislative session.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at