Denisse Rojas earned a biology degree from UC Berkeley and has set her sights on medical school. But one big obstacle stands in her way.
To practice medicine in California, doctors must obtain a license from the state, and applicants are required to provide a Social Security number as proof of identity.
Rojas, 25, does not have such a number. She is in the United States illegally, having been smuggled into the country from Mexico by her parents when she was 6 months old.
But a group of legislators wants to help her — to do for doctors, dentists, nurses, barbers, security guards and many others what they did last year for attorneys: grant those in the country illegally permission to practice their occupations.
The San Francisco resident said she was able to receive financial aid from the state under California's Dream Act for her last semester of college, so it follows that the state should allow her to use her degree.
"We believe that by removing the barrier that we face in obtaining professional licensing, we will be able to reach our full potential," Rojas told lawmakers at a recent legislative hearing.
California leads the nation in efforts to integrate immigrants living here illegally into mainstream society, providing them with driver's licenses, college scholarships and protection from deportation for minor crimes. The new legislation could go much further in affecting the lives of those in the shadows, supporters say, because it targets work and would afford them upward mobility. The state's workforce includes 1.85 million people in the country illegally, according to an estimate by the Public Policy Institute of California.
The proposal, predictably, has divided Republican lawmakers in California and sparked an outcry of opposition from national conservative groups that want tougher enforcement of existing laws against illegal immigration.
"It's insane," said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee. "By granting licenses to illegal immigrants you both aid and abet illegal immigration, which is a violation of federal law, and you are sending a message to the rest of planet Earth that says, 'Come on!'"
A bill by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) would ease the licensing process for psychologists and pharmacists, in addition to other healthcare professionals, and for about two dozen other occupations including real estate agents and security guards. The measure passed the state Senate on Thursday.
SB 1159 would allow about 40 state boards to accept a federal taxpayer identification number as proof of identification in lieu of a Social Security number.
Lara, whose parents were at one time in the country illegally, said his proposal is simply an extension of other measures enacted in recent years that provide such immigrants with driver's licenses, lower college tuition and access to public financial aid and private funds held by the state universities.
His measure would ensure that "more Californians have an effective means of economic mobility and self-sufficiency," Lara said.
A similar argument was made last year, when a divided Legislature approved a bill, later signed by Brown, that allowed any immigrant to practice law if certified by the State Bar. Fifteen Republican Assembly members either voted against the bill or abstained.
Introduced in an election year when Latino voters are expected to play a significant role at the polls, the bill is a thorny issue for the GOP, which traditionally has called for stricter enforcement of immigration laws.
Lara's bill passed with support from seven Republicans. Five GOP members abstained.
A spokesman for the Republican caucus said there was concern about the cost of such a change.
Tax authorities would "not always be able to correctly identify licensees to ensure proper collection of taxes associated with the licensee's practice of profession," said spokesman Peter DeMarco.
Outside of the Legislature, conservative activists are keeping the pressure on Republicans to oppose any easing of existing laws.
"California is doing everything in its power to blur any distinction between those who are legally present and those who are not," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, a Washington-based group that champions enforcement of current laws.
His group is a nonprofit prevented from weighing in on political campaigns. But Mehlman said the group sends its 250,000 members alerts on bills of concern and plans one on Lara's measure.
Gheen said his PAC, with 50,000 members, endorses candidates who share the organization's views on immigration.
Rojas, a double major with degrees in integrative biology and sociology, hopes the politicians listen to her and the 250 other members of a group called Pre-Health Dreamers, made up of immigrants residing in the country illegally who want to work in the healthcare industry.
"I am going to continue pursuing my dreams," said Rojas, whose family now lives in Canada. "If it comes to a point where I can't practice medicine in the United States … I will practice outside of the country if I have to."