Refugees in U.S. struggle to find long-term work

Refugees are less likely to be employed the longer they live in the United States, despite unique and early access to employment services, according to new Cornell research.

Gaining lawful permanent residency status immediately helps refugees find jobs, but after five years their employment actually declines, researchers found in their study, “Explaining Refugee Employment Declines: Structural Shortcomings in Federal Resettlement Support.”

The paper, which published Jan. 5 in the journal Social Problems, was co-authored by Shannon Gleeson, professor and chair of the Department of Labor Relations, Law and History, in the ILR School.

“We find that declines in federal funding support, market-based mandates emphasizing rapid employment and quickly achieved self-sufficiency, and a patchwork of disparately funded and poorly networked support organizations all help explain why federal resettlement resources fall short in aiding the long-term employment prospects of refugees,” the researchers wrote. “These results have important implications for studies of immigrant integration, state support for social welfare, and organizational sociology.”

The paper was co-authored by A. Nicole Kreisberg of the Harvard Center for Population and Developmental Studies and Els de Graauw of Baruch College.

The researchers used two waves of the New Immigrant Survey, a nationally representative and longitudinal survey that tracks cohorts of new immigrants, including refugees, after they receive lawful permanent resident status. They also drew on interviews with 61 refugee-serving organizations across the country.

The authors point to a steady decline in federal resettlement funding, notably after 9/11. During the 1980s, refugees could count on three years of government support, but that funding now lasts generally no more than six months.

They also found that refugees’ integration is hindered by the expectations to achieve self-sufficiency as quickly as possible. Instead of being given the time to learn English and find jobs that match their skills and abilities, refugees are funneled into low-paying jobs that do not offer long-term sustainable employment and offer few opportunities for upward mobility.

Two types of refugee support organizations – those that are funded by the federal government and focus on short-term resettlement, and those that help find long-term employment and draw on other funding sources – rarely coordinate, the researchers found. As a result, refugees struggle to get employment assistance once their federally funded job placement support ends.

“Based on our research, my co-authors and I argue that coordinating across organizations will allow refugees greater dignity and more independence as they resettle in the United States,” said Gleeson, co-chair of Global Cornells Migrations initiative. “Refugees are more likely to succeed with greater coordination. But organizations need state support to make that happen.”

Julie Greco is a communications specialist with the ILR School.

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