En español | Arturo Castillo was a physician and surgeon in Mexico for 13 years before moving to the United States. He wanted to continue working in the health care field after emigrating, but he was realistic about his prospects for continuing to be a doctor: He was still learning English, and he was raising a family and didn't have the time or resources to study for U.S. medical exams and enter a demanding residency program.
So Castillo, 54, took another tack. He became licensed as a medical assistant. For 15 years, he earned a living as a phlebotomist (drawing blood) and an ultrasound technician. Still, he longed for the deeper interaction with patients he had as a doctor. So he studied to become a physician assistant, licensed to work in all medical and surgical specialties and settings under the supervision of a doctor. He's grateful for his job but wishes there were an easier path for people like him. "Many people like me have the potential and knowledge," he says. "We're not asking to be given anything and we are willing to work; we just need an opportunity to be part of the medical field."
Castillo is among the millions of immigrants who struggle to find ways to apply their skills and educational backgrounds after moving to the United States. Of the 5.1 million immigrants with a bachelor's degree or higher who are employed, 44 percent of recent immigrants and 35 percent of long-term immigrants from Latin America work in unskilled jobs, compared to 18 percent of U.S.-born workers, according to a Migration Policy Institute study, which attributed the gap to an inability to speak English and the different standards for degrees and credentials.
These numbers tell a familiar story for Armando Vazquez-Ramos, a professor at California State University, Long Beach, who works in programs that help internationally trained professionals continue their careers in the United States. He often meets immigrants who will take any job to support their families. "Pretty soon they're working three jobs and making more than they were back home, trapped in a vicious cycle of work and no time to improve language skills and get back into some education program," he says. "It's a tragic case of brain drain from their countries of origin and a waste of human talent in the United States."
Unlike other countries, the United States lacks a centralized system to guide immigrant professionals who wish to continue their careers. Instead, each state — with its own application processes, examinations and approval boards that vary by field — manage the licensing.