Immigrants and refugees with international credentials are integral to the economic vitality of the United States, yet many are unable to contribute their skills, talents, and experience to the U.S. workforce because of systemic obstacles to employment. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the essential role of immigrant and refugee workers and emphasized the urgent need for more inclusive policies aimed at welcoming these New Americans into the workforce. Across the U.S., policymakers have been taking pivotal steps to lower barriers to employment, and momentum has been building toward enacting permanent reforms.
The health sector provides a striking example of the need for effective policy reform. The pandemic exacerbated an existing crisis in the health care system—parts of the U.S. were already facing critical health care shortages, and disparities in access to health care were pervasive. The urgency of the pandemic prompted a handful of governors to use their emergency authority to integrate international medical graduates (IMGs) into their state’s health workforce. Six states—Colorado, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York—implemented temporary measures to enable IMGs to join the fight against COVID-19. These efforts ranged from granting temporary medical licenses to temporarily reducing residency requirements for IMGs.
State policymakers are increasingly recognizing the essential role of immigrant and refugee workers and taking action to promote their inclusion in the workforce:
- In Washington, building on recommendations from an existing IMG working group, the legislature passed a law to better integrate IMGs into the state’s health care workforce. This legislation proposed clinical readiness criteria for IMGs and also created a grant award process for distributing funds to service providers to offer IMGs career guidance and clinical training. A bill allowing IMGs to work in state health facilities recently passed the Washington House and is pending in the Senate.
- In Massachusetts, the legislature created a special commission to evaluate licensing requirements for IMGs, but the commission’s report has been delayed because of disruptions due to COVID-19.
- Georgia amended provisions, opening licensing pathways for internationally trained occupational therapists, and a bill to study barriers to immigrant and refugee workforce integration is currently pending.
- California passed legislation expediting licensure applications from refugees, asylees, and special immigrant visa holders.
- In New York, the Department of State invested $2 million in the New York State Professional Pathways for High-Skilled Immigrants program, a grant initiative that will be administered by the NYS Office for New Americans. This program will offer immigrants in the state who hold international credentials and are under- or unemployed a way to pursue employment commensurate with their experience.
- Virginia joined a growing number of states committed to strengthening statewide support and coordination of immigrant and refugee initiatives through Offices of New Americans (ONAs).
- State lawmakers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland, Oregon, and Pennsylvania have introduced legislation that would establish statewide offices committed to immigrant and refugee inclusion.
These crucial steps foster the economic integration of immigrants and refugees—thus supporting a true recovery for all.
At the federal level, there is positive momentum in the current Congress which builds on some of the bills introduced during the last Congress:
- The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021—in a first for a comprehensive immigration reform package—includes the Improving Opportunities for New Americans Act, introduced in the last Congress. The bill directs the U.S. Department of Labor to conduct an interagency national study on factors affecting the employment opportunities of immigrants and refugees who have international credentials.
- The New Deal for New Americans Act was reintroduced. The bill would establish a national ONA and promote the economic integration of immigrants and refugees in the U.S.
- The National Office of New Americans Act, introduced in January, would establish a national ONA to assist and support immigrants and refugees in employment attainment, language access, and civic engagement.
WES recognizes the significance of these actions and efforts toward reform and will continue to work with state and national partners to advance policies and initiatives that ensure equitable economic opportunities for immigrants and refugees.
Visit the IMPRINT Policy Tracker to stay informed about pending and enacted state and federal legislation impacting the economic integration of immigrants and refugees.