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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Study shows many college-educated immigrants are unemployed or working low-skill jobs

    Many Americans still view immigration one-dimensionally, with catchwords like "Mexicans," "illegals" or "aliens" frequently tossed around; rarely, though, is the schism between the attained education and unemployment of the immigrant population illuminated.
    According to a study released last month by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute — the first of its kind — 20 percent of college-educated immigrants in the United States are either unemployed or working an unskilled job. Statistics like these encompass a reality not delivered by anecdotes of Mexican border-hopping and glorified images of Ellis Island.
    Jane Leu (LA '91) is the executive director and founder of Upwardly Global, an organization that helps immigrant professionals rebuild their careers in the States. She explained the major reasons for such high underemployment numbers. Immigrants do not have the professional networks to gain access to mainstream white-collar jobs. They possess the skills to do the job, but do not know how to find it. Also, employers don't know about the immigrant talent pool and lack the resources to evaluate foreign degrees and experience.
    Sandra Plaza, a beneficiary of Upwardly Global's services, began as a successful government lawyer in Colombia before moving to the States. Once here, her degree was no longer valid and the only work she could get was babysitting. After enrolling in an English program and gaining her paralegal certification, she landed a job through Upwardly Global.
    Leu stressed the adaptation of a worldview that values the assets that immigrant professionals bring — language skills, international knowledge and new and creative ideas.
    Still, it is significantly harder for Hispanic and African immigrants than Europeans or Asians to come to the United States legally and obtain a job, whether skilled or unskilled.
    "The most recent study released by the Migration Policy Institute last week shows that overall, college-educated immigrants from Africa and Latin America have less success in finding skilled jobs in the [United States] than do immigrants from Asia or Europe," said Laura Barrera-Vera, outreach coordinator for Upwardly Global.         "[This is because] the structure and characteristics of the educational systems in Europe and Asia are more conducive to the United States, Asians and Europeans tend to arrive in the U.S. with higher levels of English, and Europeans come to the [United States] through H, G and L visas in comparison to Latinos and Africans that come for family reunion, green card lottery programs, or as asylees or refugees," she continued.
    At Tufts, where the international population is enormous, many students have first-hand experience with the plight of finding work as immigrant.
     "In my family's case, it really came down to education level and the language barrier," freshman Crisitna Devia said. "My parents and my aunt and uncle are all from Colombia, but my parents didn't go to college. My mom works at Target, but cannot get a managerial position because she does not speak a lot of English, and my dad takes care of an elderly man, but his salary was docked because he is not a ‘professional.'"
    Devia explained that this contrasts the ease with which other family members have transitioned into the American work force.
    "My uncle studied in Japan. He speaks English and Japanese and has never had a problem getting a job that matches his education and experience level. Still, my aunt and uncle have been waiting for their green cards for 15 years."
    At the same time, it is often harder for immigrants who were professionals in their countries of origin to get a decent job in the United States, according to Martin Rosas, senior and president of the Students at Tufts Acting for Immigrant Rights (STAIR) coalition.
    "Immigrants come to the [United States] for all sorts of reasons, such as political asylum, refuge, et cetera, and some are highly educated and held prestigious jobs in their home country," he said. "Yet, most of these people are forced to work low-paying jobs because the [United States] makes it very hard for some of them to continue with their careers."
    Rosas's individual interactions with immigrants have made clearer the difficulties faced by those coming to work in the United States.
    "I've spoken with a mother who was a dentist in her home country, but would have to go through dental school all over again in order to practice in the [United States]. As a single mother, she could not afford to return to school and still provide for her children," he said.
    Cynthia Golzman, a lecturer in the Spanish department, explained that without her husband, a U.S. citizen, she would not have been able to acquire a green card. But even with her husband's sponsorship, the process was still long and expensive.
    Originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, Golzman received her undergraduate degree in Argentina and then came to the states on a student visa and received her Ph.D at Carnegie Mellon University in cultural anthropology.
    Once a student visa expires, visiting students must either leave the country or participate in Optional Professional Training (OPT) in which they can receive training while looking for employment.
    The catch, Golzman said, is that employers are more likely to choose an American applicant over a foreign applicant because it costs the employer money to sponsor foreign workers that are trying to acquire the correct documentation to remain in the country.
    In addition to such logistical disadvantages, the country's current economic state is another obstacle immigrants must overcome.
    "When the economy gets worse, xenophobia rises," Leu said.
    "Studies have shown that when the economy goes well people are more willing to welcome foreigners. Their perception on immigrations tends to change when the economy goes down. People become more nationalist and protective of their space," Barrera-Vera said.


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