We have seen the news footage and know the statistics—65 million people around the world have been displaced by violence and oppression. The situation is so acute that just today the United Nations General Assembly hosted an unprecedented Summit on Refugees and Migrants this month and tomorrow President Obama is convening the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees.
It’s easy to think of this refugee crisis as something removed from our day-to-day reality. At the same time, it’s difficult to put ourselves in the refugees’ shoes – wondering if you will make it home from work this evening; if your kids will be harmed on their way to school. Packing up your family and a few possessions to travel across the world to a new home, a place where you may not speak the language well or know much about the culture.
These refugees – like so many people born in America – want to find a decent job, work hard and build a good life for their families. So many of them struggle once they get here to make that happen, even with college and graduate degrees from their home countries. Many do the best they can to make ends meet, eventually finding work outside their trained profession, maybe at a fast food chain or as a janitor. Or both.
Nearly 2 million highly educated and skilled refugees and immigrants are unemployed or working survival jobs today in the U.S. They were doctors, lawyers or financial professionals in their home countries; now they’re mopping office floors or working multiple jobs in food service to get by.
Allowing this doesn’t just do a disservice to these workers, it’s a missed opportunity to fill vital gaps in our workforce and strengthen our economy.
The U.S. has a rich history of welcoming refugees and supporting their integration into society. Congress enacted the first refugee legislation in 1948, welcoming hundreds of thousands of Europeans following World War II. Since then, we have continued to be a beacon of hope for the oppressed and vulnerable around the world. In 1980, with the passage of the Refugee Act, Congress established the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to support refugees and individuals granted asylum in the United States and help them integrate into American society.
Unfortunately, though the world has changed rapidly, our policies haven’t always kept up.
Today more refugees arrive with professional backgrounds than ever before. And the economy needs more skilled workers than ever before. Supporting highly skilled immigrants and refugees to put their backgrounds to work in these open jobs would generate substantial tax revenue and consumer spending. Yet we’re less and less prepared to take advantage of that opportunity.
Initially, the government provided refugees with 36 months of English language instruction, career services, and mental health and financial support. Over the decades that support has been whittled down to eight months. That means in less than a year a refugee is expected to learn English, obtain a job (or two) to make ends meet, and recover from the trauma that he or she has experienced. In addition to that, refugee resettlement doesn’t take into account newcomers’ professional backgrounds against the needs of the communities and local economies where they’re resettled. As a result, they’re likely to end up in jobs that are low wage and low pay without consideration for their individual needs and potential.
The U.S. government knows they need more support to integrate refugees and are asking private sector companies to help. Some are responding, providing funding and supporting organizations that assist refugees in myriad ways.
While generous, it will not be enough. Successful integration requires economic integration, and that requires companies to recognize what they stand to gain by being more inclusive of refugees and newly arrived immigrants in recruiting and hiring, as well as the ways they may be inadvertently screening them out.
For a decade, Upwardly Global has been a bridge between refugees and the private sector. We pick up where today’s services leave off, coaching refugees on interviewing skills, assisting them to revise their resumes, and ultimately helping them craft a path to work in their own industry.
At the same time, we educate HR teams about refugees’ legal authorizations to work in this country, how to evaluate foreign work experience, and reframe their thinking about what that gap at the top of refugees’ resumes indicates.
As long as we have a policy for refugee resettlement, we should ensure the system can meet the full task of integration. Stopping short undermines the humanitarian and diplomatic goals of welcoming refugees– to send the word out to regions of conflict that our values of tolerance and inclusion work for the good of all. And encouraging companies to hire refugee talent will do more than just give newcomers to our country a fair shot. It will allow us to harness the diverse and vibrant talent they bring to grow and strengthen our workforce, our economy and our country.
Let’s keep the American Dream within reach for all—those born here, and those who will bravely and thankfully rebuild their lives here.
Nikki Cicerani is president and CEO of Upwardly Global.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.