Initiative seeks to help immigrants with international degrees get back into health care work

“The Chicago Welcome Back Center program is based on the national Welcome Back Initiative’s model, and will assist participants in exploring and pursuing alternative careers in healthcare while they are on the path towards licensure,” a release said. “The Center will offer case management and support services, as well as referrals to educational, community, and professional programs and organizations.

“With equity as one of its guiding principles, the program will also work to support economic development in Illinois and Chicago, as well as help Illinois’ employers gain diversity and equity in their organizations,” the statement continued. It said that more than 52,000 immigrants in the state have at least a four-year university degree in medicine. “Approximately 12,000, or 22%, of this number are working in low-skilled jobs, or out of work as a result of credential-recognition difficulties, limited English proficiency, and other barriers. Nursing is the most common degree held by those whose skills are underutilized.”

Jenny Aguirre, Chicago Bilingual Nurse Consortium board chair, noted that “bringing international educated healthcare professionals into the workforce provides for safer care for our immigrant patient population.” The state is home to nearly 2 million immigrants. “In addition to the lack of diversity, there are serious shortages in all areas of the health workforce, from nurses to mental health professionals, physicians, public health professionals, speech pathologists, etc.,” Dr. José Ramón Fernández-Peña, executive director of the Welcome Back Initiative, tells WTTW.

“It is estimated that 29% percent of physicians, 38% of home health aides, and 23% of retail-store pharmacists are foreign-born,” the Bipartisan Policy Center said in 2020. “Together, foreign-born employees make up 17% of the entire health care and social services industry, filling critical gaps in this part of the U.S. labor force.”

Tens of thousands of these health care professionals have also been front-line workers amid the pandemic even as they lacked permanent legal status. Nearly 30,000 medical care professionals are protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. More than 310,000 workers in health care occupations “were humanitarian migrants, such as resettled refugees, asylees, special immigrant visa holders, and Cuban and Haitian entrants,” Migration Policy Institute said. Many Haitian immigrants holding Temporary Protected Status have also worked as home health aides amid the pandemic.

“Non-citizens in health care professions can work in the United States through several routes,” Bipartisan Policy Center continued. “Many immigrant doctors and some nurses can obtain work authorization through the United States’ temporary or permanent employment-based migration channels, depending on their educational credentials and licensure.” Additionally, “most states require that foreign nationals wishing to practice as physicians in the United States meet their own licensure requirements as well as completing at least a portion of their medical training in the United States.”

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