How to Uplift Immigrant and Refugee Communities in a Post-pandemic World: Key Insights from a WES Social Media Forum

How to Uplift Immigrant and Refugee Communities in a Post-Pandemic World: Key Insights from a WES Social Media Forum Lead image: Young businesswoman wearing healthcare mask [1]

Even with much of the attention of policymakers focused on revitalizing the U.S. and Canadian economies, the discussion has largely ignored two communities likely to play a significant role in the post-pandemic recovery: that of immigrants and refugees.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, immigrants and refugees have suffered disproportionate financial losses. Without an intentional focus on recovery in these communities, the long-term consequences may be severe—an outcome that would hurt not only individuals, but the overall economy of the countries where they live. Given that immigrants are expected to be primary drivers of future workforce and economic growth in the U.S. and Canada, finding ways to help newcomers better leverage their experiences and skills will be crucial to rebuilding the economy of each country.

In a recent social media forum hosted by World Education Services (WES), participants explored some of the steps immigrant- and refugee-serving organizations, experts, and advocates can take to support these communities. The discussion crowdsourced information and resources that can best empower new Americans and new Canadians to use available services and move forward in a post-pandemic world.

Using the hashtag #ImmigrantsThrive, participants in the August 26 Twitter chat [2] discussed a variety of topics and solutions—from finance and policy to health care and employment—aimed at uplifting immigrants and refugees.

Below are the key topics and insights covered during the discussion:

1. Immigrants Will Be Key to Future Economic Growth: Policymakers, Employers, and Others Must Offer High-Impact, Tailored Training and Access to Opportunity

The pandemic has hit immigrant and refugee communities hard. Between February and May, employment among workers born outside the U.S. fell 19 percent, compared with just a 12 percent drop among U.S.-born workers, according to the Pew Research Center [3]. The impact of COVID-19 has been similar in Canada: The rate of job loss reached 16 percent among recent immigrants, versus just 11 percent among Canadian-born workers, according to the Labour Market Information Council [4] (LMIC). These losses may not just be temporary. The LMIC study also shows that the employment rate has been slower to recover for new arrivals than for Canadian-born workers. Other researchers worry [5] that prolonged unemployment could hurt the long-term job prospects of recent immigrants and those new to the job market.

Participants in the #ImmigrantsThrive discussion were quick to point out the importance of newcomers to the future economic growth of both the U.S. and Canada—a fact supported by the LMIC study.

In the U.S., the outlook is similar: Immigration is expected to be the primary factor driving growth in the working-age population through at least 2035, according to the Pew Research Center [8].

But ensuring that immigrants can fully contribute to the U.S. and Canadian economies and the post-pandemic recovery will require a concerted effort on the part of advocates and policymakers, as well as immigrants themselves. Twitter chat participants discussed the many actions newcomers can take to overcome specific challenges and prepare for the labor market. Notable examples included obtaining micro-credentials and enrolling in bridging programs. The discussion also highlighted the role that organizations and employers can play. Among the initiatives suggested were mentorship programs and networking support.

Ensuring that immigrants and refugees can find employment commensurate with their experience and qualifications presents other challenges. Those who hold international licenses, qualifications, and work experience often find their path to employment barred by U.S. and Canadian licensing and certification requirements. Chat participants stressed the importance of expanding pathways to licensure and certification as a way of fully integrating newcomers into the labor force. Participants also noted the importance of credential evaluation to promoting the recognition of international academic qualifications. Having international qualifications, licenses, and work experience recognized by a wider pool of employers and professions will be critical to the professional integration of immigrants and refugees.

But which sectors should be the focus of efforts to expand training opportunities and the recognition of international qualifications? During the Twitter chat, the consensus was that focusing on the sectors which would grow fastest over the next decade—health care, long-term care, technology, education, hospitality, and social services—has the potential to benefit a high, and rising, number of immigrants and refugees.

2. Immigrants Play a Large and Growing Role in Our Health: Policymakers and Advocates Need to Work to Expand Immigrant Access to Licensure and Certification

Not only is the health care industry likely to expand rapidly over the next decade, it already employs a significant number of immigrant and refugee workers. Of the more than six million new Americans in essential jobs, nearly half are employed in the health care and social services industries, according to the Migration Policy Institute [24].

How to Uplift Immigrant and Refugee Communities in a Post-Pandemic World: Key Insights from a WES Social Media Forum Lead image: Bar chart displaying the number of essential workers born both in and outside the U.S. [25]

The pandemic further underscored the contributions of the internationally educated to the health care sectors of both the U.S. and Canada. With local health care systems in the U.S. straining under the growing number of COVID-19 cases, many local governments and policymakers turned to internationally trained health professionals for help. These labor shortages accelerated reforms which, although temporary, successfully expanded access to licensure and career advancement for internationally educated health care professionals (IEHPs), including international medical graduates (IMGs). Chat participants highlighted the importance of these reforms to IEHPs and to the health care systems of both the U.S. and Canada. They also stressed the need to look beyond temporary expedients to lasting reforms.

3. Immigration Policy Can Open Doors: Policymakers Should Push to Expand Immigration Pathways and Develop Tools to Match Immigrant Skills to Community Needs

Immigration policy plays an important role in determining the employment eligibility of newcomers. New or updated immigration policies can help bring down employment barriers. In the U.S., Cris Ramón of the Bipartisan Policy Center proposed the development of “viable temporary to permanent pathways for immigrants,” similar to the Canadian Experience Class program. Such pathways would benefit both employers and new arrivals, allowing employers to retain talented workers long-term, and facilitating the transition of temporary work visa holders to permanent residency.

In Canada, the Laboratory for Artistic Intelligence highlighted the need to root immigration in local realities [36], a goal the proposed Municipal Nominee Program (MNP) sought to achieve. Although the pandemic temporarily interrupted plans for the MNP, such a program would empower local authorities and municipalities to forecast labor shortages in a way that would shape labor opportunities for newcomers.

Patrick MacKenzie, CEO of the Immigrant Employment Council of British Columbia, proposed integrating a skills assessment as part of the Express Entry immigration application process. He noted that aligning skills with the labor market, and developing a method to assess and accredit these skills, would widely benefit both new Canadians and employers.

Developing and refining pathways to permanent residency now would drastically improve the professional integration of new arrivals well into the future.

4. Access to Finance Must Be Expanded: Financial Institutions, Non-Profits, and Others Must Explore More Inclusive Lending Practices and Promote Financial Knowledge

Chat participants also explored the strategies that financial institutions, non-profits, and start-ups can use to advance the financial security of immigrants and refugees. Many participants stressed the importance of modernizing traditional banking and lending practices to make them more inclusive and flexible.

Access to credit is often difficult if not impossible for newcomers, who usually arrive without a credit score or history that can be used to evaluate creditworthiness. But there are more inclusive metrics, and some financial start-ups are using them. Both MPOWER Financing and Nova Credit incorporate non-traditional data to assess creditworthiness, thereby expanding access to individuals who might have otherwise been deemed ineligible.

Participants highlighted a number of other actions that non-profits, lenders, and other organizations can take to promote financial inclusion. Important suggestions included holding financial health and literacy workshops, producing financial documents and information brochures in languages other than English, and providing targeted financial support to immigrant- and refugee-owned small businesses through microloans, low-interest credit, and other financing options.

5. Immigrant Voices Cannot Be Ignored: Inclusivity Will Be Critical to Effectively Integrate Immigrants and Refugees in a Post-pandemic World

As participants identified and worked toward solutions across multiple areas, a common thread emerged: the need to be inclusive. Ensuring that the voices of new arrivals are heard is one of the most important steps that immigrant- and refugee-serving organizations, experts, and advocates can take to facilitate integration. Given the current struggles and projected contributions of newcomers to a post-pandemic recovery, it is more important than ever to ensure that immigrant and refugee voices are heard.

We acknowledge the following organizations which participated in our recent Twitter chat and helped to make it a success:

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of World Education Services (WES).