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College-educated immigrants vastly underemployed in US

Latin Americans, Africans faring worst, study says

By N. C. Aizenman
Washington Post / October 23, 2008
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WASHINGTON - One out of every five college-educated immigrants in the United States is either unemployed or working in an unskilled job such as a dishwasher, fast-food restaurant cashier, or security guard, depriving the US economy of the full potential of more than 1.3 million foreign-born workers, according to a study released yesterday.

The plight of such immigrants is familiar to anyone who has gotten a ride from a Washington taxi driver with an engineering degree from Ethiopia or had their car parked by a garage attendant who used to practice law in El Salvador. However, the report by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute is the first to quantify the extent of the problem.

"This shows that immigrant brain waste is a reality; that the challenge of integration is not restricted to unskilled workers, who have been the focus until now; and that a very high share of highly skilled immigrants are not progressing rapidly in the economy," said researcher Michael Fix, who coauthored the study with Jeanne Batalova.

Of particular concern, Fix said, was the finding that highly educated Latin American and African immigrants fare far worse than Europeans or Asians. Nearly half of recently arrived college-educated Latin Americans hold unskilled jobs. So do more than one-third of those who have been in the country for more than 10 years and have presumably had more time to learn English, make professional contacts, and pass US professional certification exams. The lag persists even when only immigrants who are in the country legally are considered.

By contrast, well-educated European immigrants' employment patterns are virtually indistinguishable from their US-born counterparts regardless of how long they have lived in the United States. Asian immigrants educated abroad do only slightly worse.

Although African immigrants are more likely to hold highly skilled jobs than Latin Americans, they have the highest unemployment rates of all foreign-born groups. During the 2005-2006 period, 6 percent of recently arrived college-educated Africans and 4.1 percent of Africans with a US degree were unemployed, compared with 2.6 percent of US-born college graduates.

Fix said that it is possible that discrimination against Latinos and Africans is a factor, but that much of the gap can be explained by differing language skills and immigration circumstances.

For instance, highly skilled immigrants who can speak only limited English are twice as likely to work in an unskilled job as those who are proficient in English. And 44 percent of Latin Americans educated at foreign colleges speak English poorly or not at all, compared with 32 percent of Europeans and 23 percent of Asians.

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