Op-Ed: “Self-Sufficiency,” A Broken Promise in US Refugee Resettlement
By Christina Smith, UNA-NCA Advocacy Fellow
Refugee rights, a priority on the UNA-NCA advocacy agenda, may bring to mind stories of those fleeing danger in far away lands, but advocacy does not stop at resettlement. Once a refugee has undergone the multiyear process to relocate to a third country, such as the United States, they are not automatically in the land of the free. The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states that all human beings have the right to free choice of employment (article 23), the right to a certain standard of living (article 25), and the right to freely available higher education (article 26), among much else. Instead, the United States refugee resettlement program places its emphasis on economic “self-sufficiency,” a term which often loses its true meaning in the resettlement mechanism.
Today there are 82.4 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, with 26.4 million of them being refugees. A refugee is someone outside of their country of origin who faces a “well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Tragically, less than 1% of refugees worldwide in need of resettlement to a third country are given that opportunity. Resettlement is the process by which a refugee is invited to leave the country to which they fled (second country, or country of asylum) and begin a path to permanent residency in a third country, or country of resettlement. In the United States, refugees represent just a small percentage of the population, less than 1% of all residents, and about 8% of foreign-born individuals.
The United States formalized the previously ad-hoc refugee resettlement process with the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, which adopted the international definition of “refugee,” established a process for determining the refugee admissions ceiling, and required consultations between Congress and the president. Today, the United States welcomes refugees through a process known as reception & placement (R&P). Through R&P, the US Department of State enters into a Cooperative Agreement with nine resettlement agencies (RAs), which collectively oversee 200 local offices that provide 30–90 days of initial services to newly arrived refugees. Refugees immediately receive work authorization and are expected, as the primary goal of R&P, “to achieve economic self-sufficiency through employment as soon as possible after their arrival in the United States.”
Maryland’s Office for Refugees and Asylees (MORA) defines self-sufficiency as “a level of economic well-being requiring no government support.” Refugees are expected to accept the first job offer they receive in order to begin paying their own bills immediately, regardless of previous employment history. All refugees between the ages of 18–64 are considered employable, with only three exceptions: those with medically diagnosed disabilities, full-time caretakers, and women in their third trimester of pregnancy. Resettlement agencies report their client employment statistics at 180 days post-arrival, and agencies with lower employment outcomes risk losing funding.
In the short-term, expecting refugees to find immediate employment often forces them into low-wage jobs outside of their skill set and interests. Refugees arriving in the US with a degree regularly face downward mobility upon arrival, as their degrees and credentials often go unrecognized in the US. Once this course is set, “only 5–10% of refugee adults advance their education after resettlement.” The top five industries in which refugees worked in 2015 included manufacturing (20.3%), healthcare (14.2%), general services (dry cleaning, housekeeping, machine repair, etc.) (10.0%), retail trade (9.9%), and tourism (8.8%); unfortunately, the pay was insufficient across the board. Refugees living in the United States for five years or less had a median household income of $22,000 in 2015, which put them below the federal poverty line for a family of four that same year. Immediate low-wage employment also detracted from other aspects of adjusting to their new home, such as learning English. Sadly, it’s not uncommon to hear of caseworkers removing refugees from their English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in order to take them to a job interview or to job training.
Reconsidering our Definition
Is this true self-sufficiency? Perry & Mallozzi (2011) questioned boldly: “is self-sufficiency merely a matter of being able to pay one’s bills without public assistance? Might self-sufficiency also mean possessing degrees or certificates that are required to access higher education or career paths?” (p. 26). Fairfax County in Virginia tells residents that their level of economic self-sufficiency will likely be dependent on “financial stability, educational attainment, literacy, numeracy, family structure, health/disability status, and community connections.” These measures take time and support to establish in a new location and an immediate full-time work schedule in a new country hinders such development.
An immediate focus on “self-sufficiency” at the expense of other forms of integration has long-term implications for refugees in the United States. Wages remain below the previously-discussed poverty-level earnings during a refugees’ first five years in the country. Even after living in the United States for ten years, a refugee household typically only earns 55% that of native-born workers and 70% that of other immigrants. The 2003 New Immigrant Survey examined jobs previously held abroad and found that “refugees display the sharpest downgrading in occupational prestige…of any immigrant group.”
This is a loss for the United States as well, which pushes trained and much-needed labor into sectors unaligned with their expertise. For example, the Migration Policy Institute reports that approximately 263,000 immigrants and refugees with degrees in the health fields are unemployed or underemployed in the United States. According to Karin Brown, an evaluator with One Earth International Credential Evaluations, the United States licenses our healthcare professionals in a manner different from many other countries, making recertification difficult. This is especially unfortunate as the US is expected to be short 122,000 healthcare workers by the year 2032. Similarly, Jennifer Gueddiche, director of the African Community Center, which works with refugees in Denver, Colorado, shared, “I’ve got two international lawyers and one is washing dishes and the other is working at Safeway. They would like to enroll in U.S. law schools.”
Deskilling and Other Losses
Unfortunately, keeping refugees from their desired field may become irreversible due to “deskilling,” which explains that the longer someone is forced to engage in a career different from their own, they will eventually start to forget the skill set that they had. This can take an emotional toll as well, as refugees forced into jobs unaligned with their skill set may feel they lack purpose, which can lead to feelings of marginalization and lack of belonging. In addition to low wages and the inability to continue in one’s chosen career path, the work environments in which refugees find themselves are oftentimes precarious. During the economic crisis of 2006–2009, refugee employment fell from 54% to 40%; most of those remaining being temporary and part-time workers.
Fortunately, the previously mentioned New American Survey also found a subsequent increase in job prestige among refugees following the sharp decline, but only after significant time had passed. Similarly, after 25 years the median income of refugee households surpasses native-born workers, but by that time, households have different wage-earners as the children have grown up, attended school in the US, and forged their own career paths. This makes sense, as refugees who arrive before age 14 typically find success in line with their native-born counterparts. While these statistics may sound promising, are we comfortable, as a nation, sacrificing parents to poverty and hardship with the knowledge that their children may one day be better off? Beyond employment and wages, refugee arrivals face other long-term consequences resulting from immediate employment, most notably sacrificing dedicated time to learning English. Additionally, many refugees arrive in the United States with a history of trauma, and forcing them to work full-time right away can delay or cut short their healing process.
There is no reason that individuals who have come to our country for safety should have to face such difficulty. Yet unfortunately, refugees arrive to find little more than a few month’s start-up assistance and a job placement program. It’s time we redefined economic self-sufficiency. A study conducted by Miriam Potocky Tripodi examined influences upon refugee economic status and found the most important determinants to be education, gender, disability, and household composition. She concluded, “on the micro level, the logical goal of intervention is to enhance human capital, particularly education, which was the one determinant that was consistently among the most important for all refugee groups.” Given the importance of education in economic advancement, should this not be prioritized in a program of “self-sufficiency”?
A New Landscape for Self-Sufficiency
A 2010 report by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations reached the following conclusion: “resettlement efforts in many US cities are underfunded, overstretched, and failing to meet the basic needs of the refugee populations.” We have a lot of work to do. And yet there was a time when we allowed refugees a period of adjustment before immediate employment was expected. When the Refugee Act of 1980 was first passed, refugees were initially granted a 60 day exemption period where they were not expected to find employment. Congress began slowly curtailing benefits to refugees in 1982, including medical and cash assistance. They also cut back on funding for ESL and job training programs. In 1982, Congress eliminated the exemption, requiring refugees to begin the employment search immediately. Reinstating, and even elongating, a grace period would provide refugees with more time to learn English, get to know their community, and pursue education, recertification, or various career paths that better fit their interests and skill sets.
However, that alone is not enough. Potocky Tripodi concluded that “active intervention is needed in order to enhance refugees’ economic status” and education is key to doing so. While R&P services are sometimes followed-up with programs from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), only select refugees in choice areas receive these various services. Either R&P should be expanded to include more hands-on education, career, and English language support, or ORR should expand its many services to all refugees.
Even with expert guidance, refugees will face roadblocks as long as we require them to become recertified or return to school for a profession that they have already practiced successfully. Credential evaluations can be costly, confusing, and even then, are not always accepted. Congress should work with universities and professional associations to develop a standardized transfer mechanism. A potential model to examine is the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees. This is a matter some representatives are taking seriously at this time, with the recent introduction of the Improving Opportunities for New Americans Act of 2021. If passed, this bi-partisan bill would “direct the Department of Labor to conduct an inter-agency, federal study on the factors that impact U.S. employment opportunities for immigrants, refugees, and asylees with international training and education.” The bill has been referred to the Committee on Education and Labor and awaits review. If passed, this is just a first step in making meaningful, well-paying employment more accessible to newly arrived refugees in the United States.
The United States, like other wealthy countries, relies heavily on low-wage labor to support our capitalist society. I recognize that the issues addressed in this piece are by no means unique to just refugees, and as advocates before me have argued, no one in the United States, regardless of background, should experience poverty or lack of fulfillment in their work. When any individual improves their skills and education, capitalism risks losing a low wage-earner. As one employer shared, referencing his refugee employees, “I want them to learn English, but when they start learning too much English, they begin looking to get out of the factory … can’t blame them, but training new replacements is one of my greatest costs.” We cannot sacrifice refugee talent and potential to our nation’s demand for low-wage labor. The R&P program is complicit in this cycle until it makes some drastic changes. More funding is necessary for English programming and opportunities to attend school and vocational training. We must make recertification more seamless and fund community initiatives to support refugees as they transition to their new homes. Time and patience are required for all of the above to take place, which demands an extension of social benefits to refugees before requiring work. It’s time to examine how the R&P program can advocate for refugee success in their new country.