Why We Must Act Now to Ensure Immigrants Have Equal Opportunity for Economic Mobility

Migrants constitute an important part of our labour markets. What can we do to reduce the barriers that prevent them from accessing their rights? Banner image: Shutterstock/coloursinmylife

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Immigrants and their children represent one out of five people in OECD countries. Immigrants and refugees constitute 17% of the total United States workforce and one quarter of the Canadian workforce.

Promoting economic mobility so that all immigrants, especially refugees, have equitable access to employment opportunities and work that is commensurate with their education and experience is vital to ensure thriving economies and societies. This is an imperative at this critical moment of recovery.

As CEO and Executive Director of World Education Services (WES), a non-profit, global social enterprise dedicated to the professional and academic success of immigrants in the United States and Canada, I am driven by a belief in global collaboration and mobility. WES’s core service, providing international academic credential evaluations over nearly five decades, makes us uniquely aware of the contributions and qualifications that immigrants and refugees bring to our communities.

Immigrant workers are essential to the United States’ and Canadian workforces. They are disproportionately represented on the front lines of the pandemic in the health care, food and janitorial service sectors. They’re also overrepresented in industries hardest hit by the economic crisis, including domestic and accommodation services.

However, systemic barriers to economic mobility persist.

An OECD-EU report (Settling In: Indicators of Immigrant Integration, OECD and EU 2018) shows that OECD-wide, among highly educated immigrants, almost 16 million are either not in employment or in jobs for which they are over-qualified—almost 45%. This underutilisation of skill denies communities the diverse professional, social, cultural and linguistic competence of these qualified individuals. Its economic impact is critical, too: according to MPI, skill underutilisation keeps millions of dollars out of the United States economy each year in forgone earnings and unrealised taxes. We see a similar challenge and opportunity in Canada: addressing immigrant underemployment and the resulting wage gap would add an estimated CAD 50 billion to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Barriers—including regulatory policy, employer prejudice related to race and international qualifications and unequal access to workforce development training and adult education—contribute to skill underutilisation and prevent immigrant and refugee populations from advancing in the workforce. Many immigrant workers, particularly those in low-wage jobs, also face limited access to affordable childcare, health care, reliable transportation and stable housing, all of which impact employment status.

At WES, our social enterprise model provides us with the resources to address some of these barriers. Any surplus resources generated from our evaluation services are invested directly into our social impact programmes, philanthropic initiatives and policy and advocacy efforts that advance equity, inclusion and economic mobility in support of immigrants and refugees.

Less than 1% of funding provided by the 1,000 largest foundations in the United States goes to refugee or other immigrant causes. This fact coupled with other inequities, such as institutional racism and rigid immigration policy, means that refugee and other immigrant workers can be some of societies’ least likely to experience economic inclusion.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing inequities and put new pressures on immigrant communities, such as being excluded from various forms of government financial relief. So, at the onset of the pandemic our philanthropic arm, the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, directed resources to organisations addressing immediate and long-term needs of refugees and other immigrants, such as financial relief and more resilient career pathways. The Fund also launched its first open nationwide grant-making initiative, the Opportunity Challenge. Led in partnership with the Tarsadia Foundation, the initiative focused on identifying community-driven efforts that support the success of immigrant workers.

Find more on the Forum Network: Intention to Action: How recovering from COVID-19 can propel us toward a more equitable working future, by Liz Shuler, President, AFL-CIO

Recognising and valuing the education, skills and experience of immigrants is essential to the livelihood of our communities. This is even more pressing as our current workforce retires and the makeup of our society continues to become more diverse. To fill workforce gaps now and in the future, WES Global Talent Bridge addresses barriers that immigrants with international training and qualifications face in finding work commensurate with their experience. It facilitates collaborations between institutional partners, community-based organisations, and policymakers to develop programmes and resources that advance immigrant workforce integration.

In Canada, WES Global Talent Bridge is working with local municipalities and regions through the #ImmigrantsWork project to better integrate immigrant talent as employers recover from the pandemic and rebuild their workforces.

The policy environment, particularly around regulated professions, also impacts the economic inclusion of immigrants. Enabling internationally trained immigrants and refugees to attain licensure in core industries, such as health care, will be necessary to meet future public demand.

WES hosts IMPRINT, a United States-based advocacy coalition dedicated to advancing more equitable policy at the state, national and local levels to support immigrant workforce integration. Last year, IMPRINT successfully sought policy change in six states that temporarily adjusted health licensure requirements, making it easier for qualified, internationally educated health professionals (IEHPs) to practise during the pandemic. In Canada, WES Global Talent Bridge is conducting parallel work to increase the number of career and licensure pathways available to IEHPs.

COVID-19 has underscored the long-standing inequities in our communities, from access to quality health care to economic opportunity. As nations seek to recover and rebuild, we must prioritise economic inclusion.

The WES mission is to help people learn, work and thrive in new places. This is something that will only be realised through collaboration with institutional partners, advocates, service providers and others in the field of immigrant integration. Together, we must work toward a more inclusive and equitable future for all, including refugees and other immigrants.

Find more about global migration in the OECD International Migration Outlook 2021: 

Lear more on how Covid-19 affected immigrants and their children in the OECD Covid-19 Policy Response:  

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Future of Work Migrants' Integration Tackling COVID-19 New Societal Contract

Esther Benjamin

CEO and Executive Director, World Education Services (WES)

Esther Benjamin is CEO and Executive Director of World Education Services (WES), a non-profit social enterprise dedicated to helping international students, immigrants, and refugees achieve their educational and career goals in the U.S. and Canada.

Social media accounts:

Twitter: @WorldEdServices/ @EstherTBenjamin