(TNS) — Before he came to the U.S. as an asylum seeker, Mohamed worked as a licensed pharmacist in his home country in the Middle East for two years. But upon his arrival, he had to start the entire licensure process over again, a process which took him about four years.
Mohamed, who asked not to be referred to by his full name because of his pending immigration status, said he's actually one of the lucky ones. Many of his friends took far longer to get their licenses.
"I knew it was a multi-step process, but I didn't know it was that complicated," Mohamed said. He was eventually able to obtain a new license and find work in the Central Valley. "It was not as clear as it should have been."
Getting a professional license in California, required for a wide range of jobs from cosmetology to landscaping to practicing law, is an inherently complicated process. There are 37 different state boards and bureaus that each have their own specific requirements, exams and fees. But the process is especially thorny for refugees, asylum seekers and special immigrant visa holders, who have to jump extra hurdles such as steep translation costs, language and cultural barriers and, in cases where they had to leave their homes due to emergencies, lost paperwork.
Many refugees and asylum seekers also face a difficult choice between embarking on the lengthy, expensive certification process or jumping straight into the first job they can find to support their families.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom last month signed a law intended to smooth part of this process by directing boards within the Department of Consumer Affairs to expedite professional licensing applications for refugees, asylum seekers or those with special immigrant visas.
The idea, said Assemblyman Evan Low, D- Campbell, who introduced the bill in February, is to help those who apply for jobs in highly regulated career sectors to be able to get the jobs and quality of life they want on a quicker timeline.
"I wanted us as a state to have a broader message to refugees settling in California that you are absolutely welcome here," Low said. "We are not working against refugees trying to rebuild their lives."
It's a good first step toward making the process more straightforward, advocates said, but more changes will be needed to really make a significant difference.
"Licensing barriers are consistently a hurdle," said Sara McElmurry, director of communications, policy and research at Upwardly Global. She said having the support to speed up the process is helpful "but it doesn't address the full spectrum of support needed."
Many Obstacles for Refugees Seeking Professional Licenses
Mohamed estimated he spent more than $3,000 on application fees and exams, which, he said, is much less than what some of his peers had to pay. Some people he knows had to retake the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam to demonstrate English proficiency multiple times, he said, and it's $150 a pop.
Language barriers also presents problems for refugees and asylum seekers, advocates said, and not all licensing boards require translations to be made available for qualifying exams.
There's also the required onsite training hours, which takes years to complete and aren't always paid. Mohamed said many of his friends were forced to take unpaid 'volunteer' positions at pharmaceutical companies because they had no other way to complete the required 1,500 hours for a pharmacy license.
Mohamed managed to snag one of the few paid positions he could find, but he still drove for Uber on the side, he said.
"Getting those hours can be really hard for people," said Sasha Feldstein, economic justice policy manager for California Immigrant Policy Center. "People are just trying to survive when they come to this country."
Such a long and involved process can be especially discouraging for older refugees who have already gone through a similar process to get licensed in their home countries. After working professionally for a number of years in their home countries, advocates said, the idea of having to start the process over from scratch convinces many to abandon the pursuit entirely.
One of Upwardly Global's clients, a physician from Nigeria, has more than ten years of experience in primary care, McElmurry said. But now that she's in the U.S. she will have to start the entire process over, including residency and board certifications.
"To invest time and money in a process they've essentially already done ... that's a real barrier," McElmurry said.
The worst part of the process for Mohamed was the paperwork, he said — sorting through the complicated legal language, getting translations when he needed them and then getting them completed on time with all the correct seals.
There also wasn't enough guidance from the state about how to navigate the system, he said, and he eventually turned to Facebook pages and other forums to answer questions like "What if I don't pass my exams the first time?" or "How much are the fees?"
"Being a foreign graduate, you're on your own," Mohamed said.
More Changes to Be Made
Advocates agreed that the basic requirements to obtain a professional license should remain rigorous, but many said they want to see clearer guidelines about requirements such as exam locations, what documents are required and when they need to be translated by.
Mohamed said he'd like the waiting time to be cut down, which AB 2113 would address, and he wants companies to pay their interns. More occupational training programs that include English-language education would also be helpful, Bouris said.
Several advocates said that they'd like to see more exemptions made for those who arrive with licenses from their home countries. They'd also like to see more licensing boards providing exam translations, as well as clear-cut explanations of the documents each board requires along with a specific timeline for when to submit what documents.
"I think really what it comes down to is less barriers to licensure for those who have valid licenses in other countries," said Leila DeViney, an employment services advisor with Upwardly Global. "In (the coronavirus) pandemic, we've seen a surge of demand for nurses in particular. ... It's sort of brain waste not to have these fully trained professionals nurses be able to help."
Tools To Get Started
The easiest way refugees and asylum seekers can get started navigating the professional licensing process is to turn to their local nonprofit organizations, advocates said. In Northern California and the Central Valley, that includes Upwardly Global, Immigrants Rising, the California Immigrant Policy Center and the International Rescue Committee, which has several locations across California including Sacramento.
Bouris also suggested turning to American Job Centers, which offer job search workshops and free computer access, as well as community colleges or four-year universities that have welcome-back centers, which focus specifically on coaching international healthcare workers.
In Sacramento, Johnson suggested looking to adult education providers, which could also help with general goal setting and career counseling. Advocates there can help refugees and asylum seekers with things like interview coaching, resume building and in-language training.
The first thing that many refugees, asylum seekers and special immigrant visa holders will need guidance for, advocates said, is someone to simply explain and help them understand all the different paths they can take upon arriving in the U.S.
"Trying to figure out what the first three or four years will look like. ... It's hard to take in what that will look like in the first few months," Johnson said.
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