By Monica Munn and Jina Krause-Vilmar

The impacts of COVID-19, including the downturn in our economy, have collided along persistent and predictable racial and socioeconomic fault lines in the United States.  Poor communities, immigrants, and people of color are among those most affected. 

It’s clear that the ability to overcome this pandemic and safely reopen and rebuild our economy depends on a shared commitment to offer equal opportunity and investment to those who have been historically undervalued in our society. This requires employers, philanthropists, service providers, and other advocates to take a hard look at the status quo that brought us to this moment.  The barriers that have resulted in limited opportunity for immigrants, refugees, BIPOC, and many other Americans on the sidelines of our society, workforce, and economy must be dismantled.

Championing and centering these communities provides a pathway forward in our economic recovery. Study after study shows that diversity begets resilience, adaptability, and innovation, precisely what our country needs to re-open safely and create new jobs and new ways of working. 

Our two organizations, the World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund and Upwardly Global, are committed to advancing opportunity for immigrant and refugee workers in the U.S. Over the past year, the Fund has invested nearly $4 million in catalytic organizations that support the aspirations of immigrant and refugee workers who represent a wide range of backgrounds, educationational attainment, and skills. Upwardly Global, which received one of the Fund’s inaugural grants in 2019, focuses on the two million college-educated, work-authorized immigrants who are systemically unemployed or underemployed in this country, many of whom work in minimum wage “survival” jobs, as clerks, cab drivers, caregivers, and other roles.

Upwardly Global works with thousands of these professionals each year. Upwardly Global’s program participants and clients come to the U.S. with high-demand skills in healthcare, finance, IT, and other STEM fields. They have critical professional experience, multilingual abilities, and cross-cultural competencies. Some are veterans of past pandemics and crises, having worked on the front lines of Ebola, SARS, and Swine Flu in their home countries, and equipped to fight the health crisis we’re now facing in the U.S. 

Yet a myriad of barriers prevents these new Americans from fully contributing their talent, education, and professional experience to the workforce. Like others in underrepresented groups, they are vying for opportunities in a system rigged against them. They often encounter biases about their backgrounds, misunderstandings about their work authorization, and misconceptions about the value of their credentials and experience. 

Current hiring practices in the U.S. are a critical part of the unemployment and underemployment experienced by immigrants, refugees, and many others. A full 85 percent of positions are filled through existing networks, putting those from underrepresented communities at a distinct disadvantage. The result is homogenous teams along with flawed decision-making. We can afford neither at this critical time. 

At the onset of the pandemic, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund and Upwardly Global partnered to host a series of Inclusive Recovery Design Sessions. At these meetings, immigrants and refugees with professional backgrounds and representatives of leading companies worked together to develop a plan for a resilient, future-ready workforce by embracing diversity and equity. Here are a few tangible steps to begin to move the needle:

  • Commit to building diverse workforce pipelines.  The vital work of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) means intentionally cultivating relationships in underrepresented communities and including immigrants and refugees explicitly. We’d like to see employers make concrete commitments and time-limited pledges around diversifying pipelines. Contact your local refugee resettlement agency or connect with organizations like Upwardly Global or Welcome Centers. Build opportunities for candidates to join your team in short-term, low-risk ways. On-site learning opportunities like paid internships or apprenticeships give immigrant and refugee talent an opportunity to learn U.S. workplace culture and obtain U.S. industry experience, all shown to be critical for opening doors to future opportunities. 
  • Re-think resumes and hiring. Championing new talent does not stop with building new networks; it also involves changing how we evaluate candidates. Highly qualified immigrants and refugees are often overlooked because Americans find their names hard to pronounce, their academic credentials are unfamiliar, or employment history is with lesser-known companies. By scrubbing these details from applications, we can ensure that candidates are evaluated based on core competencies. It is also important to actively challenge bias through training that covers all dimensions of diversity — race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nativity, language, and even cultural norms. 
  • Create mentorship and leadership opportunities.  Successful inclusion strategies are embraced at all levels of skill and seniority. Since candidates from underrepresented backgrounds are often hired for entry-level positions, a company-wide commitment to advancing them to mid- and senior-level roles is essential. Mentorship is key not only for retention and growth, but also to support immigrant and refugee candidates as they navigate new workplace cultures and systems. 

The intentional inclusion of immigrants and refugees in our workforce is fundamental to fostering critical systemic change. Creating welcoming workplaces and opening doors for this underrepresented talent will lead to more opportunities for all. To help us achieve this vision, join our growing cohort of employers committed to ensuring that immigrants thrive in an inclusive, equitable economy.   

Monica Munn is Senior Director at the Mariam Assefa Fund, a philanthropic endeavor of World Education Services (WES), focused on building more inclusive economies for immigrant and refugee workers. Jina Krause-Vilmar is CEO of Upwardly Global, the oldest national nonprofit focused on the professional integration of immigrants and a Fund grantee partner. 

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