Learn about our work to advance policies that give immigrants and refugees a fair chance of reaching their educational and career goals.
Immigrants and refugees make up 17 percent of the U.S. labor force, and nearly half of recently arrived immigrants and refugees hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), more than two million immigrants and refugees with college degrees are underemployed or unemployed in the U.S. Sixty percent hold credentials earned abroad.
“My training and experience were recognized last year. Why is this year different? I can continue to serve and save lives.”
Lubab graduated from a top medical college in Baghdad and worked as a licensed pathologist for 18 years, saving countless lives until her own security was threatened. In 2014, she resettled with her family in the U.S. Seeking safety cost Lubab her career: Barriers to licensure, including time-consuming and costly medical exams and clinical training, prevented Lubab from rebuilding her medical career in the U.S. To support her family, she took a job at a restaurant.
In 2020, New Jersey granted Lubab a temporary medical license that allowed her to support the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response by caring for patients in a nursing home. However, the license has since expired. Lubab now works as a pathologist’s assistant.
“U.S. employers didn’t understand my professional experience from Nigeria or what I could offer here.”
Toyosi earned a political science degree in Nigeria and built a successful career in the country’s non-profit sector, working on wide-ranging social issues with international NGOs. But when she moved to the U.S. in 2018, her extensive experience & international credentials were not understood or valued. She took a job as a personal shopper with an online service to pay her bills.
With support from Boston-based African Bridge Network, a partner organization of the SIIP Demonstration partnership opportunity, Toyosi has been able to secure a role with a local nonprofit focused on addressing hunger. She is now poised to advance her career in the U.S., but at least two million other college-educated immigrants and refugees still face underemployment. Policy reforms must address barriers that limit employment of immigrants and refugees who hold international credentials.
“I’m a doctor. I live in a community with doctor shortages. I want to serve patients, but my training isn’t recognized here.”
Rona worked as a nurse for three years in Afghanistan before completing a medical degree and practicing as a physician for two years. When ongoing political instability threatened her security, Rona moved to Kabul, where she worked with both the United Nations and USAID. Since resettlement to the U.S. three years ago, systemic barriers to licensure have prevented her from working as a physician. Limited recognition of her credentials and experience from Afghanistan mean that she needs to repeat her education and training to practice medicine in the U.S., a process that takes years and costs tens of thousands of dollars.
With support from Washington Academy for International Medical Graduates (WAIMG), an IMPRINT member organization, Rona is rebuilding her career in health care. She has worked as a medical interpreter and a patient care coordinator intern. She recently completed coursework to become a medical assistant and phlebotomist, and works part-time while studying to earn an associate degree in the U.S. She hopes to find a full-time job that will both support her family and help address growing health workforce shortages in Washington State.
“I was a household name as a journalist in Africa, but that experience isn’t recognized in the U.S.”
Ivana was a well-known journalist in Sudan and South Sudan, using her platform to advance gender equality. When she came to the U.S. in 2017, she took a role as a home-health aide. She works long hours to provide for her three children. Limited recognition of her prior experience has kept her from rebuilding her journalism career in the U.S. “But the hope is always there,” Ivana says.
Ivana is working with Upwardly Global, an IMPRINT member organization, to advance her career, but additional policy reforms are needed to address the barriers that limit employment for immigrants and refugees who hold international credentials.
“I was a licensed lawyer in Italy, but my credentials aren’t recognized in the U.S. I’m now starting over, working to earn a paralegal certificate.”
Donatella earned a master’s degree in law and an Italian bar certificate before enjoying an eight-year career with an international corporation in Italy. But since moving to the U.S., she has been unable to practice law as her credentials aren’t recognized.
Instead, Donatella has worked as a retail sales associate. The JobUp—a work-readiness accelerator for immigrants seeking to use their credentials and member of the WES-based Global Talent Leadership Network—put her on a path to professional relaunch. With time and persistence, she was offered a position as a legal assistant at a law firm in New York City. She is currently working to earn both paralegal and notary public certifications.
Donatella is one of the two million immigrants and refugees with a bachelor’s degree or higher who are underemployed in the U.S. Sixty percent hold credentials earned in other countries. Policy reforms are needed to ensure that everyone has a fair chance of reaching their career and educational goals in the U.S.
“I wanted to continue my work toward women’s empowerment in the U.S., but my first job was in a sector I’d never worked in before.”
As a member of the national Afghan women’s soccer team and an outspoken gender equity advocate, Kawser Amine blazed trails for women in Afghanistan. With a degree in international relations, she worked for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and for Afghanistan’s First Lady in Kabul before relocating to the United States with her family as a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holder.
Kawser Amine had aspired to continue advancing gender equity via public service once she relocated, but she quickly learned that her immigration status disqualified her from holding federal government jobs, and her credentials and experience earned in Afghanistan were not readily recognized by U.S. employers. She took a job as a bank teller to support her family.
Today, after receiving support from IMPRINT steering committee member organization Upwardly Global, a national non-profit that eliminates employment barriers on behalf of immigrant and refugee professionals, Kawser Amine works as a refugee community organizer in Northern California. She also recently launched a non-profit organization focused on advancing women’s leadership and gender equity, to empower women to support other women. The barriers Kawser Amine faced when she resettled to the U.S. are shared by many other internationally trained immigrants and refugees. Two million college-educated immigrants and refugees are unemployed or underemployed in the U.S.; sixty percent of hold credentials from another country. Policy reforms are urgently needed to build a more inclusive workforce.
“The main obstacle was not knowing anyone in the U.S., and also underestimating how different the job market is in the U.S.”
Chiara earned two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree in Italy and built a successful career in the country’s education and travel sectors. But when she moved to the U.S. in 2017, a limited professional network was a major barrier in continuing her career here. With support from The Job Up, a member of the WES Global Talent Leadership Network, Chiara learned about the U.S. job market and how to effectively stand out and be hired. She is now a program manager at a California-based university. There are at least two million other college-educated immigrants and refugees who face unemployment or underemployment. Policy reforms must address barriers that limit employment of immigrants and refugees who hold international credentials.
“I was a licensed, experienced physician in Afghanistan. But to work as a doctor in the U.S., I have to repeat my training.”
In Afghanistan, Niamatullah built a successful seven-year career in medicine as both a physician and United Nations public health and nutrition program associate. However, since resettling in Washington State, he has been unable to practice medicine.
Under a new state law, Niamatullah could qualify for a limited license to work under the supervision of a fully licensed doctor, but obtaining a permanent medical license requires him to repeat medical exams and a residency, a multi-year process that will leave him unable to work and provide for his three children. He’s considering alternative pathways—becoming a Registered Nurse or a Medical Diagnostic Sonographer—but even those options will require him to repeat basic prerequisite courses as his international credentials are not recognized.
Niamatullah has secured short-term roles in patient care coordination and public health, including work as an administrative assistant with a local COVID-19 vaccination and testing program.
“I invested years building a law career in the Dominican Republic, but it felt like I was going to have to start from zero in the U.S.”
Greisy was an attorney in the Dominican Republic. When she came to the U.S., she was unable to practice law. With support from IMPRINT member organization Upwardly Global, Greisy has secured a job in New York City’s financial sector, but there are many more internationally trained immigrants and refugees who face systemic barriers in rebuilding careers in the U.S.
“I have two degrees from Ukraine and years of experience working in marketing, but my background isn’t recognized in the U.S.”
Iryna came to the U.S. from Ukraine in 2019 with degrees—in both marketing and translation, and years of experience working in the field of marketing. To advance in her career, Iryna recently completed several digital marketing courses. With support from The Job Up, a work-readiness accelerator for immigrants seeking to use their credentials, and member of the WES-based Global Talent Leadership Network, she has polished her resumé, grown a professional network, and secured numerous interviews. Yet time and time again, promising positions were offered to other candidates. To pay her bills, Iryna currently works in customer service at an e-commerce company.
Iryna is one of the two million immigrants and refugees with a bachelor’s degree or higher who are underemployed in the U.S. Sixty percent hold credentials earned in other countries. Policy reforms are needed to ensure that everyone has a fair chance of reaching their career and educational goals in the U.S.
Systemic barriers to economic mobility—including limited recognition of credentials earned in other countries—impact individuals who are seeking to resume their careers, deny communities critical social, cultural, and linguistic competence, and keep millions of dollars out of the U.S. economy each year.
Policy reforms are necessary to ensure an inclusive workforce. There are opportunities for policymakers to take action:
Invest in accessible workforce development training and career-aligned English language learning.
Support state and local efforts to advance economic inclusion.
Ensure that occupational licensing laws recognize credentials earned in other countries.
On September 19, 2022, the U.S. Congress passed the Bridging the Gap for New Americans Act, and the bill became law on October 17, 2022. More than 200 partners joined WES’ campaign to pass this bipartisan legislation, which directs the U.S. Department of Labor to study the factors limiting employment opportunities for immigrants and refugees who hold credentials from another country.
Approximately two million immigrants and refugees who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher are either unemployed or underemployed in the U.S. according to the Migration Policy Institute. The IMPRINT Coalition calls upon the White House Task Force for New Americans to ensure that internationally trained immigrants and refugees are served through future federal policies, programs, and funding initiatives.
In September 2021, WES launched the #UntappedTalent campaign to promote immigrant and refugee economic mobility. More than 130 organizations joined the effort to advance policies that are inclusive of all workers in the U.S.