Most Californians may assume that the result of welfare reform will be to force recipients off the public dole and into jobs. But that’s only part of the picture.
A little-noticed provision of state and federal welfare reform could affect millions of workers, from truckers and bar owners to barbers, accountants and physicians--in short, anyone who depends on a license from the state to ply a trade.
In a move that is being called the first of its kind in the country and already is eliciting protests, the Wilson administration plans to require that all state-licensed workers prove they are U.S. citizens or legal residents the next time they renew their professional licenses.
That means producing papers--birth certificates or passports, for example, for citizens, immigration documents for legal residents. Without the papers, state licenses will be denied.
“It’s beyond bad. It’s nuttiness,” said Barry Broad, a Sacramento lobbyist for the Teamsters and other labor organizations. “I don’t know why [government] would want to put people through this bureaucratic hell.”
Broad noted that citizens who have been working for years but do not have their birth certificates will have to call or write to the counties where they were born and request copies of the papers. That process can take weeks, especially if they were born outside California, and can cost $20 or more.
The Department of Motor Vehicles plans to release regulations Friday saying truckers and other commercial drivers will need to prove their citizenship or immigration status when they renew their licenses, starting as early as July 1. The DMV renews 573,000 commercial licenses annually.
The state Department of Consumer Affairs plans to begin unveiling its new regulations in March, administration officials said. The department renews 800,000 licenses annually for accountants, architects, barbers, physicians and roughly 200 other professions covering 2 million Californians.
The list goes on: the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department issues 71,000 licenses to people who sell liquor. The California Environmental Protection Agency licenses dry cleaners and pest controllers. The Department of Industrial Relations licenses talent agents.
The Department of Real Estate, which already has drafted its regulations, plans to announce in its March newsletter that the new citizenship requirements will take effect Aug. 1 for the state’s 300,000 licensed real estate brokers and sellers. Spokesman Dan Garrett said the new requirements aren’t yet “on people’s radar screens,” but he is bracing for howls once the rules become widely known.
“When it hits, people who have been licensed for 20, 30, 40 years are going to have to prove they’re here [legally],” Garrett said. "[It’s] more paperwork from the government. I don’t think people like that.”
Altogether, more than 3 million people are licensed to do business in California and could be affected by the pending requirements.
Officials say citizens with professional licenses will have to prove their citizenship only once, and that the information then will be added to the state database. Legal residents will have to prove their status each time they renew their licenses.
“It’s a challenging undertaking, but we’re moving to implement it as fast as we can,” said Consumer Affairs spokesman Bob Brown. “We’re aware of some of the practical difficulties. . . . The key is going to be getting the word out so [people] have time to get the documentation.”
“Certainly,” Brown added, “a professional license is a benefit, a valued commodity, and we want to make sure that it’s reserved for legal U.S. residents.”
Defending the proposal, Wilson administration officials say that although most public debate over welfare reform focused on how to move welfare recipients into jobs, Congress also sought to deny “public benefits” to illegal immigrants.
The most obvious public benefit is a monthly welfare check, and in fact welfare recipients must prove citizenship. But the 1996 federal welfare law expands the definition of public benefit to include professional and commercial licenses issued by states--and requires states to verify that holders of such licenses are legal residents.
Wilson signed an executive order last March requiring that all state agencies implement the federal welfare law, including the licensing provisions. California would be the first state in the union to impose the licensing aspect of the federal law.
“California carries a tremendous burden of illegal immigration,” said Wilson spokeswoman Lisa Kalustian. “Welfare reform is not only ensuring that people who need assistance and have a right to assistance receive it. Part of it is being sure that those who don’t have a right to public benefits don’t receive them.”
Kalustian predicted that any burden placed on workers will be minor. “We don’t anticipate there will be a difficulty for people to obtain whatever documents they may need,” she said.
She added, however, that if workers fail to produce the proper papers, they will be denied state licenses, making it illegal for them to continue working.
Under a 1994 state law, the DMV has been requiring that new applicants for regular driver’s licenses--primarily teenagers--produce proof of citizenship or legal residency. The new requirement stemming from the 1996 federal welfare law and Wilson’s 1997 executive order will expand the requirement to veteran drivers of trucks and other commercial vehicles.
Broad, the Teamsters’ lobbyist, scoffed at the idea that “public benefit” includes a license to drive a truck.
The new campaign doesn’t come without a cost to the state.
In his proposed budget, Wilson is asking the Legislature to add 32 employees to the DMV to handle the work of verifying the citizenship or legal residency of commercial license holders, at a cost of $1.16 million.
That’s only part of the price. State officials plan to fly to Washington, D.C., in early March to work out an agreement allowing the state to hook into the Immigration and Naturalization Service computer system.
Once it’s expanded, the much-criticized federal computer system will enable state workers to verify the immigration status of legal residents within a matter of seconds, in theory. Wilson officials say they intend to ask the Legislature in April for money to cover the cost of using the federal computer. They aren’t yet sure how much that will be.
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State Licenses and Welfare Reform
People with state-issued professional and commercial licenses soon may be required to show proof of citizenship or legal residency before they can renew them. The new rules are part of Gov. Pete Wilson’s implementation of welfare reform. Here are some of the affected agencies and those they license:
Department of Consumer Affairs: Issues licenses for more than 200 occupational classes such as doctors, dentists, contractors, architects, acupuncturists, accountants, barbers, security guards and smog-check technicians
Horse Racing Board: Veterinarians and jockeys
Emergency Medical Services Authority: Paramedics
Department of Industrial Relations: Farm labor contractors, garment manufacturers, studio teachers, talent agents, crane operators
Environmental Protection Agency: Dry cleaning operators, pest control inspectors
Department of Real Estate: Real estate brokers, agents and appraisers
Department of Motor Vehicles: Commercial drivers
Department of Corporations: Securities brokers and finance lenders
Alcoholic Beverage Control: Bar and liquor store owners
State Banking Department: Foreign exchange agents and issuers of traveler’s checks