Dreamers Denied: DACA Nursing Students in AR Cannot Receive License

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - All recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood program may not be able to call the U.S. home for much longer. 

However, some in Arkansas just found they cannot continue their education as they wait to learn their fate. 

According to the rules enacted under President Barack Obama's executive order, nursing students cannot sit for their NCLEX exam, which means they cannot receive their license. 

Two students at Northwest Technical Institute (NTI) in Springdale were recently denied the opportunity to take the NCLEX. 

Dr. Debra Walker, the director of the Practical Nurse Program, said the students currently have four options: accept a full refund of their tuition, stay in the program and wait out DACA, transfer into another program at NTI that does not require a license or move to one of several states that have overridden the license rule. 

"We hate it because they're good students and going to make good nurses one day," Walker said.  

A DACA nursing student at Northwest Arkansas Community College (NWACC) was also turned away from the exam. 

The colleges said they received guidance from the federal agency that runs NCLEX, but the agency denied sending anything to Arkansas schools. 

Sue Tedford, the executive director of the Arkansas State Board of Nursing, said she learned late this summer about the rule, after the Missouri Board of Nursing brought it to her attention. 

"It is a big concern because these students are getting caught in a crack they can't fix," she said. 

The Arkansas legislature is the only state entity that could fix the issue. Like other states, it would have to pass a corrective measure to define what "specific immigration status" means and amend it to include DACA. 

Mireya Reith, the founding executive director of Arkansas United Community Coalition (AUCC), said the organization tried to file a bill during the past legislative session to avoid this but spent all of its time fighting anti-immigrant legislation.

"We politically literally timed out of trying to correct this," Reith said. "It's a change in practice and not policy. I don't think anyone realized what was happening in the nursing field. A lot of DACA folks were recruited to think about nursing, specifically because of the desperate need we have."

The recent news has caught lawmakers' attention. 

Constituents flooded Rep. Greg Leding's phone, email and social media pages about the unknown rule, prompting him to contact the state board and the northwest Arkansas schools where students were affected. 

"I would hope that we could find a way to support these students," said Leding, D-Fayetteville. "I would certainly hope that Gov. Hutchinson would be willing to look at this and put the weight of his office behind it if there is a state solution."

One of the biggest supporters of nurses in the legislature, Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, said allowing DACA nursing students to take the exam is especially important if Congress does not come up with a plan and they get deported. 

"They would be able to go back with licensure that would give them a higher status in their home country where they're going back to," Hammer said. 

Rep. Hammer requested information from the state board to see just how many DACA recipients in Arkansas this affects. He said depending on the answer, he could bring up the issue soon in a legislative committee. 

Reith said all of the confusion emphasizes the need for swift action by Congress. 

"No one did anything wrong, but this is what happens when you make chaotic policy," she said.  

No one could answer if a DACA nursing student was allowed to take the exam in Arkansas at any point since the program's implementation. 

"I decline to comment on that because of individuals being affected," Reith said. "I will say that from what we can discern and affirm is that it wasn't being checked."

"I just can't even emphasize enough the chaos that this would create if the nursing board were to in any way try to figure out who is DACAmented and if there's any DACAmented individuals with licenses," she continued. "Because they're filling this huge need for our state." 


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