NEW YORK—For immigrants coming to the U.S., the “American Dream” can be a tricky thing. Even with professional skills in tow, these people often face barriers and difficulties.
Rosemarie Martinez, administrative coordinator at the Brooklyn Educational Opportunity Center, experienced the difficulties firsthand. Despite graduating from a top university in Puerto Rico, Martinez was still asked repeatedly about her credentials when she came to the U.S.
“To get in, I had to push,” Martinez said.
There are 7.2 million college-educated immigrants over the age of 25 in the U.S., according to Migration Policy Institute data; 1.6 million of these people remain underemployed, working in low-wage jobs. Additional figures from the Institute show that 20 percent of foreign-born workers who earned their degrees abroad are in low-skill positions, compared with 12 percent of U.S.-born college graduates.
Many immigrants take jobs driving taxicabs or working as cashiers, despite having advanced professional degrees. It works out quite well for some, particularly those determined to make their own way. But, others refuse to take this route. Those seeking to use their skills face a number of challenges, including language barriers, difficulties in verifying their credentials, and in some cases, bias. A number of nonprofit organizations are mobilizing to help skilled immigrants seeking better positions.
The New York City Employment and Training Coalition hosted a workshop in November called Supporting Skilled Immigrants for nonprofit professionals. IMPRINT, a coalition of organizations working toward immigrant professional integration, sponsored the event. Representatives from several nonprofits that are working on the issue, including Upwardly Global and CAMBA, spoke about the challenges immigrants face in the U.S. and offered possible solutions to the problem. Other nonprofit professionals in attendance shared their experiences.
The low-level jobs immigrants with professional skills, including doctors, lawyers, and engineers, often take in the U.S. are called “survival jobs.” These individuals usually have families to support, some of whom are still living in their home countries. Sometimes, driving a taxicab is the quickest way to earn money to send back home.
“It’s remarkable how many engineers drive cabs in New York City,” said Brigid Moynahan, chief executive officer of The Next Level. Those in the immigrant professional integration field call this trend “brain waste.”
Nassirou Diallo came to the U.S. four and a half years ago from Guinea. He is a journalist by training and refused to take a “survival job” upon his arrival. Diallo felt fortunate that his parents were able to send him to school in Guinea and he did not want to waste his skills. “I have a moral debt toward my community,” Diallo said. He feels he owes it to the people in Guinea to make use of his education.
Upwardly Global, a nonprofit working to eliminate barriers for skilled immigrants and refugees, helped Diallo secure a position at the Harlem United Community Health Center. He now works part-time for Upwardly Global as an intake associate, while he studies film at Borough of Manhattan Community College. He hopes to return to Africa to work on political campaigns once he finishes his studies.
“I would like to import the best of America to Africa,” Diallo said. He plans to go back and forth between Guinea and the U.S.
Diallo said it is rare for someone of his background to be in a professional position; most are driving cabs. “There is nothing wrong with driving a cab. But, in my opinion, there is nothing to learn,” he said. “I don’t see my life like that.”
Immigrants in the U.S. face several barriers in pursuing professional careers. “Language is the biggest issue that we have,” said Althea Dickson, manager at Hudson Human Resources.
Twenty-eight percent of the college-educated immigrants in the U.S. have limited capability in English, according to IMPRINT. Even with some speaking ability, many immigrants fail to comprehend the language to the degree that most employers require.
Furthermore, immigrants with professional degrees from other countries must have their credentials evaluated before they can work at such a level in the U.S. This can be costly and time consuming, Dickson said, adding that those with considerable wealth often have an easier time, but those less fortunate are forced to start over and gradually work their way back up.
The job market in the U.S. focuses on the individual rather than community, which can be hard for immigrants coming from other cultures, said Kristy Grammer, managing director at Upwardly Global. In addition, U.S. customs, such as shaking hands, can be difficult for them to adapt to, she said.
Getting employers on board can be difficult, as well. CAMBA, a nonprofit that connects people with opportunities to help better their situations, recently sent to a prospective employer two versions of the same resume. The skills were identical, but details were altered on the second copy to imply that the applicant was educated in the U.S. Although location was the only difference between the two, the employer showed interest only in the U.S. version. Immigrants may have the skills an employer needs, but companies sometimes show bias against them.
Nonprofit organizations, like those involved with IMPRINT, seek to help skilled immigrants make themselves more attractive to employers. They offer services to help immigrants improve their English language skills, build resumes, and prepare for interviews.
Immigrant Bridge, which provides stepping-stones for immigrants, is one such effort. It is funded by the New York City Economic Development Corporation and run by CAMBA, Upwardly Global and Goodwill. Immigrant Bridge, now at the tail end of a two-year pilot run, helps skilled workers make the leap from their “survival jobs” to “gateway jobs.” Eileen Reilly, vice president for economic development at CAMBA, said Immigrant Bridge doesn’t recreate their old jobs, but it tries to provide a step for them. Immigrant Bridge can help a doctor who is working as a cashier move into a job as an emergency medical technician, Reilly said.
For some, though, starting over is what coming to America is all about. Tekhe Gaye moved to the U.S. from Senegal in 1992, when he was 35 years old. He had gone to college in Senegal and worked as a teacher there for 12 years. Instead of seeking to teach when he arrived in the U.S., Gaye began driving a taxicab. It was an easy choice to make, he said.
Driving a taxicab provided Gaye with more income than he could have made teaching. He made enough money to support his family back in Senegal and send his son to college there. Making a new life is the most important thing, Gaye said.
Now, Gaye takes journalism courses online at Poynter’s News University and works as a talk show host for African Caribbean Radio and Television. On his show, called BoppuKogn, he discusses African matters and attempts to educate immigrants with backgrounds similar to his own on American culture and politics. He still drives his cab, too.
“Those who come to this country come with a bag, and you have to know how to use it,” Gaye said. He made his life in the U.S. without help.
Organizations looking to help must understand these people, Gaye said. He believes people can use the skills brought with them to pave their own road. “The dream is there,” he said. “It never ended.”