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Underutilized High-Skilled Immigrants with Health Care Degrees Represent Untapped Pool of Talent as U.S. Struggles with COVID-19 Response
Press Release
Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Underutilized High-Skilled Immigrants with Health Care Degrees Represent Untapped Pool of Talent as U.S. Struggles with COVID-19 Response

New MPI fact sheet offers first-ever state profiles of these workers

WASHINGTON – As hospitals in hotspots across the United States are strained by COVID-19 cases, an estimated 263,000 high-skilled immigrants and refugees with health-related undergraduate degrees are either employed in low-skilled jobs requiring no more than a high school diploma or are out of work. A new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) fact sheet offers the first state-level profiles of these underemployed workers, who are found all over the country, not just in traditional immigrant-gateway states.

These 263,000 immigrants and refugees, who majored in a health-related field (nearly half of them in nursing) as undergraduates, have been largely sidelined as a result of barriers including difficulty getting their academic credentials recognized and limited professional networks. These hurdles are keeping many from joining the 12.1 million U.S. born and more than 2.6 million immigrants employed in the health care field before the coronavirus outbreak began.

The fact sheet, Brain Waste among U.S. Immigrants with Health Degrees: A Multi-State Profile, uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Labor to offer a profile of where these immigrant professionals live, the languages they speak, their English proficiency, college degree majors and legal status. The fact sheet also offers an overview of policies in the eight states (Colorado, Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania) where governors have used their executive authority to temporarily suspend or adjust licensing requirements for certain health professions, including for internationally trained health care professionals.

The researchers find that the 263,000 foreign-born health professionals experiencing skill underutilization (also known as “brain waste”):

  • Are widely distributed across the United States. Beyond the traditional top immigrant destinations of California, Florida, Texas, New York and New Jersey, sizeable numbers of these health care professionals can be found in states such as Georgia and Washington (8,000 apiece); North Carolina and Michigan (6,000 each); and Tennessee and Connecticut (3,000 apiece).
  • Speak languages that overlap substantially with those spoken by Limited English Proficient (LEP) populations in the states where they live, making them a potentially valuable resource in providing linguistically and culturally competent care and serving as a public health resource in their communities.
  • Are overwhelmingly in the United States legally, with more than 80 percent legally present as naturalized U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, humanitarian migrants and holders of temporary nonimmigrant visas.

Even as U.S. health care workers experienced severe job losses in the health sector in March and April amid stay-at-home orders and shutdowns, immigrants with health care degrees who are on the sidelines represent a valuable asset during a public health crisis because of their linguistic skills and backgrounds. “These highly educated immigrants offer both language and cultural skills that are not replicated in the current health care labor force,” write authors Jeanne Batalova, Michael Fix and Sarah Pierce.

Given that these language and cultural skills may allow them to communicate more effectively on sensitive topics such as disease and the movements and associations of a person possibly exposed to the coronavirus, the fact sheet suggests this talent pool could be tapped as contact tracers as states ramp up testing and tracing.

“With the disease spreading particularly fast among Latino and other immigrant and minority communities, broad demand for the kind skills that many underutilized immigrants with health degrees offer should be high not just in tracing networks, but in other emergency and nonemergency settings,” the authors add.

Read the fact sheet here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/brain-waste-immigrants-health-degrees-multi-state-profile.

Get state profiles of underemployed immigrant workers with health care degrees, including their race/ethnicity, legal status, degree majors, origin countries and proficiency in languages other than English: www.migrationpolicy.org/sites/default/files/datahub/MPI_HealthCare-Brainwaste_State-Profiles.xlsx

For all of MPI’s research, analysis and commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic, including of immigrants working in health care and other frontline pandemic-response occupations, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/coronavirus.