On September 1, Phil Murphy, the governor of the American state of New Jersey, signed a law that would allow undocumented immigrants in the state to apply for jobs in regulated professions as long as they meet other requirements and qualifications necessary for employment. Indian-origin assemblyman Raj Mukherji, from the Democratic party, was one of the main sponsors of the Bill, along with legislators Yvonne Lopez and Gary Schaer.

The newly-enacted law prevent companies from insisting on a document proving “lawful presence in the United States as a qualification for obtaining professional or occupational licence” to work in regulated professions.

The law is said to benefit 53,000 residents of New Jersey who are eligible for benefits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, under which individuals who were illegally brought to the US as children may be granted temporary relief from deportation for two years, subject to renewal. The DACA policy was framed under former US President Barack Obama.

Assemblyman Mukherji spoke to Scroll.in about the New Jersey legislation that promises to open up more opportunities for undocumented immigrants in the state, his views on President Trump’s policies, and the impact that the Indian-American community can have on the 2020 presidential elections.

Here are the excerpts from the interview.

What inspired you to take up the cause of employment of the DACA-eligible residents in New Jersey?

These individuals have been working as frontline workers during the pandemic and we have labour shortages in critical occupations. There are benefits to granting professional licences to undocumented immigrants. It’s not just something we are doing for the dignity of those immigrants of our community, it’s actually something that is going to benefit the public at large. That’s the reason why I wanted to pursue it. It took newfound importance to me because during the pandemic, we are seeing immigrants from India and other countries risk their lives by serving as essential workers in the United States. Creating barriers to providing them with equal opportunities is “unamerican”.

How does the legislation pan out at a time when unemployment in the country is already on a rise due to the pandemic?

This legislation does not take away any “American jobs”. We have dramatic labour shortages in a number of critical regulated professions. DACA-eligible immigrants can help us fill those critical labour shortages. They have been doing that in unlicensed occupations throughout the pandemic, but they can also serve in additional occupations such as teaching and nursing and a variety of other regulated professions.

Remember, this law doesn’t relax any other requirements or standards the applicants have to fulfil – you have to go to school, you have to graduate, you have to pass the test, you have to be fully qualified – you train true to your ability to participate in these jobs. All that the new law does is remove an arbitrary immigration question, it has nothing to do with qualification to safely and adequately perform the job in these regulated licensed professions. It’s not a competition between folks on the unemployment line and folks who are eligible to do the work that we need to be done.

Has there been any backlash from other sections of the community who might not be eligible to avail the benefits of the order or who might think it jeopardises their employment opportunities? How has society in general responded to the legislation?

Hal Turner, a white supremacist radio host who went to jail for threatening the lives of federal judges, leaked my home address on the internet and invited his followers to “pay me a visit and thank me at my house”. Sure, there are ignorant people who haven’t read the Bill, who don’t actually know what it does. We got a death threat out of this thing that had to be investigated.

The fact is, the resistance is from the fringe. New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the country, and we are proud to be welcoming to all communities. We are going to try to adhere to our state’s heritage of diversity. The comments I have received criticising what this law mostly come from people who have not read it, and also from zip codes outside of New Jersey.

How have Trump’s federal policies impacted the lives of DACA-eligible residents?

Immigration policy has been a disaster under the Trump administration. It’s been a disaster for Indian, and frankly, all immigrants. But for the Supreme Court, he would have eliminated that (immigration), threatening all those children who grew up here, who were educated here, and could have contributed to the economy by paying taxes so that we could get a return on our education investment. The DACA-status of these individuals would have been jeopardised if the Trump administration had its way. It seems like we have been in a constant battle for the dignity of our immigrant communities under this President.

This law addresses a grave issue that bars undocumented immigrants from obtaining professional and occupational licensure. What are the other obstacles for DREAM-ers that still need to be addressed?

As a state legislature, we cannot change federal law with respect to work authorisations. This law doesn’t, all of a sudden, make all undocumented immigrants eligible to work in regulated professions. DACA-status holders already have federal work authorisation. All that the new law does is make them eligible to work in regulated professions if they are otherwise fully qualified to do so.

What we need is more meaningful and sweeping immigration reform across the country to take the immigrant population out of the shadows and safely make them tax-paying economic contributors to society because they are already here and are otherwise law-abiding residents. We can do that in a dignified way and maintain our position in the world as a democracy that is welcoming of diverse communities.

There is also no denying the fact that we need border security. I understand why America needs border security, the same as India. But, the undocumented population that is already here – if they have a clean criminal history, we should be bringing them out of the shadows and finding ways for them to participate in our society and contribute to our economy. That’s why we changed the law to get them drivers’ licences, that’s why we moved this Bill with respect to occupational licensure, but we can only do so much. It’s my counterparts at the federal level that need to enact immigration reform and strengthen border security at the same time.

What was your experience of growing up in Jersey City as an Indian like?

New Jersey is a great state to grow up in as an immigrant in because it is very diverse. I grew up in a suburban community, but it wasn’t until my early teenage years that I understood that I was different. I think we have it better in New Jersey because of the community – it’s not like I was the only brown kid. I guess I was pretty lucky.

What made you stay on in the US when your parents decided to move back to India?

My parents didn’t move back by choice, it was because of my father’s deteriorating health. He was unable to work and he couldn’t afford medical insurance without a job. My parents’ decision to return was an economic one. It’s a shame that in this democracy, not every American was accorded health insurance at that time, before President Barack Obama’s landmark reform.

I had an internet and software business here, and I was in school, I guess I just was not prepared to leave it all behind, so I stayed back as an emancipated immigrant.

What is your view of the impact of how the country’s administration has handled the Covid-19 pandemic on college education?

My criticisms of federal handling of the pandemic related to higher education mirror my criticism of the federal handling of the pandemic overall. The first step in avoiding the unprecedented death toll would be to not deny the existence of the crisis. At every step of the way, it seems that President Trump has acted to minimise the threat of Covid-19 in the interests of his own re-election and at the cost of American lives. I think that applies in the college setting, it applies in the professional setting, and it applies to homes throughout the country.

What do you think will be the role of the Asian Indian population in the upcoming presidential elections in the US?

If they are looking to vote in self-interest – for tax benefits and an economic policy that will lift the middle class, that will create jobs, that will afford dignity to the immigrant communities, that will result in investment in education, that will restore the respect that President’s office owes to our military veterans, and that will bring our country together because we have become polarised in the past few years – then I think the entire Asian American community, and not just people of Indian descent, should unite and vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. They should support the Democrats especially because it is the first time in history that we have a South Asian candidate fighting the election on a major party’s presidential ticket.

A new survey by AAPI data has said that although Asian Indians are more likely to vote in favour of the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris duo, the support for Trump in the community has gone up from 16% in 2016 to a projected 28% this year. What do you think are the reasons behind this?

That surprises me because if we are going to abide by stereotypes, Asian Indians supposedly read the news at a higher percentage than other immigrant communities, so I would assume that the support for Trump within our community has dwindled in the last few years and not gone up. But, if you’re living under a rock and you are not aware of the harm that has been done to our community and to the small businesses operated by our community by the action and the inaction of this President, then maybe that (rise in support) is a possibility. I am, however, surprised by these numbers.