When Juan Carlos Pérez told his friends he was going to study to be a teacher, they dismissed his intentions: “They told me: ‘What’s the point? You’re not going to be able to teach.’”
He was an undocumented immigrant who crossed the border from Mexico and arrived in New York at age 11, with his younger brother and his mother.
They were right — initially.
But on Wednesday, a rule passed by the New York State Board of Regents in February will go into effect, allowing certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to apply for professional teaching certificates and for licenses in 57 professions. Soon, nurses, social workers, architects and engineers who came from countries as disparate as Dubai, South Korea and Ecuador will enter the city’s work force, newly licensed. Medical students now have a way to fulfill their ambitions.
“It’s just a relief,” Mr. Pérez, 30, said last week in his classroom at the International High School at Union Square, where students hail from 49 countries. “I feel like I’m always on borrowed time because I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
The state’s rule change comes after a 2015 decision that allowed the licensing of an undocumented New York lawyer, Cesar Vargas. An appellate panel of the State Supreme Court ruled last June that Mr. Vargas should be allowed to practice law because he was authorized to work under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The program allows immigrants under 31 who were brought here by their parents to live and work legally in the United States and be temporarily protected from deportation.
Janet Calvo, a law professor at the City University of New York who provided the legal analysis for the Vargas case, sent a memo persuading the Regents that because of Vargas and similar case law, there should be no bar to noncitizens applying for other licenses.
Undocumented students are already eligible to attend state and city universities.
“New York has invested educational resources in these students, and it made no sense not to get the return on the investment,” said Natalie Gomez-Velez, the director of the law school’s Center on Latino/a Rights and Equality, also a party to the memo.
According to Ms. Gomez-Velez, California and Nebraska also allow immigrants in the deferred action program to get professional licenses.
It is unclear how many people in New York will be affected by the rule change because schools and the state do not keep track of who is undocumented.
Mr. Pérez came to the United States in 1997. His father had left six months earlier when his business was failing in rural Tlaxcala. The family settled in Corona, Queens. Mr. Pérez attended a bilingual middle school there, but did not speak much English. It was not until he got to high school, struggling with the language and coursework at International High School at LaGuardia Community College, that his teachers encouraged him.