Can refugees work legally in the U.S.?

Shortly after Ernest Pyaohn arrived at O’Hare International Airport as a refugee from a camp in Thailand, he was employed. His job: Working at O’Hare Airport.

As with many refugees who are placed in sanitation jobs or in hospitality, Pyaohn, was assisted in finding work by the resettlement agency – World Relief – that sponsored him.  He had no expectations of any specific jobs when he came to Chicago. He knew, though, that he wanted to support his family by any means necessary.

He struggled with the two-hour commute from his home to the airport. The job involved walking long distances, often at night, and the pay was low.

He wanted to better himself. With World Relief’s help he was able to find a job with the Tyson Meat Factory. The job paid more, but was not his ideal work. The agency then helped him craft a resume to submit when he applied for another job, this one at Heartland Alliance, another resettlement agency. He was able to pass a language test and got the job. There he works as an interpreter and health promote for his own Karen Burmese refugee community.

In contrast to immigrants whose employment status often depends on their immigration status, refugees enter the U.S. with the authorization to work, according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants [USCRI].

When Ernest’s youngest daughter attempted to obtain a U.S. passport, she faced accusations of being an “illegal immigrant.”

“What do they think, I just jumped out of the plane?” she said. “I had my I-94 [a federal form indicating non-immigrant visa status] and now I have a green card.”

“The U.S. government expects a working-age refugee to find a job within six months of arrival,” according to USCRI.

“Resettlement organizations often have employment specialists who help refugees with their job search,” USCRI counsels. “Many states have a designated agency that receives state funds to help refugees find work. This function is usually coordinated by the State Refugee Coordinator.”

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which coordinates international action to resolve refugee problems worldwide, calls achieving economic self-sufficiency the “cornerstone” of the resettlement program. Yet the agency states in a document that refugees “should be aware that foreign job certification is often not valid in the United States and that further training, testing and/or certification may be necessary for some jobs.” It also advises that “many jobs available to newly-arrived refugees are entry-level and refugees are encouraged to improve their language and job skills in order to move up the economic ladder.”

More technically, the UNHCR says that “refugees must have documentation authorizing employment such as an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) and the I-94 form, which they receive from DHS [Department of Homeland Security] upon arrival.”

What it often boils down to is the local resettlement agencies. They are the groups that work closest with the individual in facilitating the employment process. One group with offices in Chicago, New York and San Francisco,  that acts as a “resource for immigrant professionals and employers” is Upwardly Global.

Upwardly Global works as an aid to highly qualified immigrants and refugees in finding jobs that are comparable to the careers they held in their countries of origin. On their FAQ page, they describe an example of an Upwardly Global job seeker, who holds a Ph.D., and whose first job in the U.S. was  as a part-time cashier at a grocery.

Another refugee resettlement agency in Chicago is Heartland Alliance. The group offers a program to help refugees that caters to their limited knowledge of English by providing the vocabulary and vocational skills needed to support themselves financially.

Four reasons Upwardly Global cites as barriers to employment include: lack of networks, poor resume presentation, a failure to self promote and misconceptions. The mission: bringing highly progressive employers and highly qualified immigrants and refugees together to find the right fit.

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