On a good day, Muhammed Rufai Batmanoglu picks up about 20 passengers for Lyft or Uber, mostly in Manhattan or Brooklyn. On a slow day, he takes riders as far as Riverdale in the Bronx to make ends meet. It’s a long trip for a Staten Island resident, and a huge career setback for a biomedical engineer from Turkey.
“In Turkey, I had a good job and a Ph.D.,” says Batmanoglu, 32. “When I came to America, the land of dreams, I was downgraded to a driving profession.”
The engineer, who used to research epilepsy in babies to predict seizure episodes and devise treatment, now drives 11 hours a day, seven days a week, to earn an average of $1,000 a week.
He’s one of a growing number of skilled immigrants who have moved to the United States since 2010. He’s also part of nearly 2 million who work at jobs that hardly require an education, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent research organization in Washington.
Now even more professionals are coming, according to the Brookings Institution. Overall the U.S. has its highest proportion of foreign-born population — 13.7 percent — since 1910. About 45 percent of those who have arrived since 2010 have college degrees or higher, Brookings found in its analysis of Census data. According to the Institution, more Asians than Latin Americans are also immigrating to the U.S. — an influx led by China, India and the Philippines. The change is bringing a higher proportion of educated arrivals.
But the U.S. has a problem of structural underemployment among skilled newcomers, know as “immigrant brain waste.” The U.S. system is designed “to admit college-educated immigrants, but not to integrate them into the workforce after they come here,” says Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, and national expert on the subject.
The pizza doctor
Many highly skilled immigrants face daunting relicensing requirements that often derail any possibility of relaunching their careers. Dr. Haldun Çetinkanat, 50, an orthopedic surgeon from Denizli in southwest Turkey specializing in hand and wrist reconstruction, arrived here in 2018 and so far has only found temporary work in a pizza parlor in Midtown Manhattan.
He rolled dough and baked pizzas for a couple of months until the owner replaced him with an experienced chef. He won’t return to Turkey; he and his family fled the country after a failed coup in 2016 provoked political turmoil that is causing a diaspora.
Health professionals face a particularly challenging road to recertification. “The process for foreign-trained MDs is lengthy, time-consuming and expensive,” says Tania Ramirez, program manager at the Welcome Back Center at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, which serves as many as 600 immigrants with a healthcare background a year.
Medical relicensing can take two to eight years and includes requirements to pass three medical-licensing exams, to be certified by the Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates and to secure a medical residency program, which is difficult even for U.S.-born applicants, says Ramirez.
And that’s despite the shortage of doctors that is expected to reach 120,000 vacancies in the U.S. by 2030, according to data published by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in April 2018.
“I would love to be an orthopedic surgeon again,” Çetinkanat says. “But it’s going to take a long time. I’ll be 60 when I’m done.” His wife Ülkü — a Turkish internal medicine doctor—also faces licensing issues. They live with their two children in Staten Island.
Stacey K. Simon, director of the IMPRINT Coalition, a national umbrella organization of nonprofits in the integration field, says Americans were starting to wake up to the roadblocks faced by foreign-trained doctors.
“We’re all becoming aware of the growing need for health practitioners, especially in rural areas, across the country,” she says. The need to innovate is pushing policymakers to start considering the talent pool of underutilized immigrants, she added, “but it’s a slow process.”
Scattered efforts to close the gap
Among the states that have made efforts to reduce licensing barriers for immigrant professionals, programs established by Minnesota and Maryland in recent years are the most comprehensive.
The Minnesota Legislature passed a law in 2015 to integrate the skills of immigrant medical doctors in underserved and rural areas across the state. According to a report published by the Minnesota Department of Health in Aug. 2018, 130 physicians were pursuing a residency position “to integrate into the Minnesota health care workforce.”
Maryland has created a governmental interagency body, the Maryland Skilled Immigrants Task Force, meant to attract, train and integrate skilled immigrants to fill labor shortages.
In the legal employment arena, last year Tennessee adopted new laws to allow more foreign-trained lawyers to take the state BAR exam.
The New York State Assembly passed a bill in 2014 to help immigrant dentists “who are employed as a full-time faculty member at a NYS dental school” to acquire a state license, as long as they remain employed as such.
On the federal level, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democrat from California, introduced a bill (H.R. 5917) in May 2018 that highlights the systemic nature of immigrant brain waste in the U.S. and would fund the integration of skilled immigrants starting with those in healthcare.
A need for English skills
Çetinkanat, says he would be happy to make $13 an hour, as he did at the pizza parlor, if the work were connected to a program that would eventually allow him to work as an orthopedic surgeon. But for all his medical education and training, he hasn’t found a way to either transfer his skills or get a job to support his family. Both he and his wife lack fluency in English, like many educated immigrants.
They recently enrolled in language classes for entry level careers in healthcare with the YMCA of Greater New York. They hope it will improve their lot in life, even if it means taking a job as a phlebotomist or a medical assistant down the road.
The scarcity of English language programs to acquire fluency in specific professions and technical fields, is among the barriers to opportunity for skilled immigrants. Another one is American employers’ preference for newcomers with U.S. work experience, says Bergson-Shilcock, co-author of “Steps to Success,” a seminal 2016 study that identifies pathways to integration.
“Made in America” short-term credentials or certificates on the resume — training programs, internships, volunteer experience — from recognized U.S. universities or companies can help, she says. So does having connections, but U.S. social capital is not what the Çetinkanats have.
“We’re happy that the American people accepted me and my family,” the surgeon says. “But I wish that I could help in return because in Turkey I was a helpful person.”
Batmanoglu knows the struggle. He too fled Turkey after the country endured an attempted military coup in 2016. When he arrived in New York that August he didn’t know anyone. He has work authorization and speaks English well enough to look for a job, but without professional connections the best he can do is drive his car for a living.
His wife, a former high-school math teacher, is unemployed and cares for the couple’s young children, ages 5 and 1, in Staten Island. The family enjoyed a high standard of living in Istanbul, says the engineer.
“I feel like a hamster spinning in a wheel,” Batmanoglu says. “We have a lot of worries here.”
The Biggest Barriers
Newcomers in these professions face the steepest licensing barriers in New York State according to Rebecca Tancredi, vice president of programs at Upwardly Global, a leading national nonprofit in skilled-immigrants’ integration.
Dentists are required to pass the National Board Dental Examinations (part 1, part 2 or both) and graduate from an accredited U.S. college of dentistry. For more information visit the American Student Dental Association website.
Medical doctors must pass three United States Medical-Licensing Exams, be certified by the Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates and secure a medical residency. Upwardly Global maintains an up-to-date list of licensing requirements forphysicians.
Teachers: New York State’s requirements to obtain teaching certification vary, depending on subject, age of prospective students, and whether a school is public or private.WES Global Talent Bridge published an e-guide titled “Can Immigrant Professionals Help Reduce Teacher Shortages in the U.S.?”
In 2016 the New York State Board of Regents, which oversees state educational attainments and institutions, lowered career barriers for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients who are interested in professional jobs including teaching, pharmacy, dentistry and engineering. They are young immigrants who entered the country without proper documentation as children, but are allowed to work.
Lawyers: The New York State Board of Law Examiners, which oversees the bar exam, publishes guidelines for foreign-trained attorneysto have their credentials evaluated. Foreign-trained lawyers with insufficient credentials may need to earn either a Juris Doctor degree or a Masters of Law degree from an accredited program to take the licensing test. A special program at the Brooklyn Law School, the LL.M. for Internationally Trained Lawyers program, caters to the community of international lawyer and helps them integrate their foreign education to fulfill U.S. requirements.