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Monday, December 11, 2017

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” You might remember that slogan from decades ago.

Well, the intellectual and creative gifts of many in America are being squandered, especially those of immigrants. A new report shows that, increasingly, new arrivals to our country are more and more educated — college educated — but are not employed in jobs that use their full potential.

Nearly half, 48 percent, of the adult foreigners who resettled in the U.S. between 2011 and 2015 had earned at least a bachelor’s degree, and many have advanced degrees. This steady influx of brain power is a shift that has been occurring largely unnoticed for decades. Before 1990, only 27 percent of adult immigrants came with a college education. That rose to about 33 percent before the 2008 recession hit, and it has continued to rise.

Yet a study coordinated by the Migration Policy Institute found that one in four college-educated immigrants are either performing low-skilled jobs or are unemployed. And it’s costing the nation. Every year, the government loses $10.2 billion in tax revenue because of the underutilization, according to the findings.

In addition, these immigrant families lose out on nearly $40 billion in annual earnings. When you consider how those unseen wages could have been fed back into the economy, it can’t be disregarded as chump change. And that’s considered a conservative estimate.

It does no good for anyone to have a foreign-trained engineer shoveling french fries, pushing a mop or clipping hedges.

The top reason why they aren’t fully utilizing their talents is the most obvious one: a lack of fluency in the English language. Many can function well enough at lower service economy jobs, but they often lack the verbal capacity to work in the business or professional fields they trained for.

Sometimes they’re held back because their licensing isn’t applicable in the U.S. This explains the foreign-trained medical doctor who drives a taxi.

Fixes might include creating better bridge programs between foreign and U.S.-based licensing, helping with business or medical language fluency, and reworking how we structure visas so that these workers fill gaps in the labor force without displacing the U.S.-born. And cultural differences that act as barriers could be addressed, such as by telling a foreign-trained engineer that, in America, personal bragging on a resume is expected.

But not all of the problems are this straightforward. Mindsets need to shift, too. Immigrants also face racial and ethnic bias, including notions of what kind of immigrant is “deserving.”

Researchers found that, overall, college-educated Hispanic immigrants suffered a great deal of what we might call “brain waste” — working beneath their educational attainment. South Asian and East Asian immigrants fared better. Some of that might be attributable to the widespread perception that the latter are “model” minorities.

When the researchers controlled for legal immigration status, language fluency and other factors, black immigrants still fared poorest. That says everything about the rest of us, not them.

A little perspective: The foreign-born are 7.6 million of the 45.6 million college graduates in the labor force.

You might wonder why we should concern ourselves with immigrants when there are so many college-educated U.S.-born citizens who can’t get a job in their field. The study looked at their struggles, as well. They number nearly 7 million. And the authors argued that helping both groups is called for, as about the same proportions of each (22 percent and 24 percent) are out of work and not even looking for a job.

While low-skilled, undocumented immigrants are often the targets of abuse generated in our increasingly nativist political climate, educated immigrants who are legally present catch a lot of flak, too. Many Americans can’t or won’t make the distinction.

The vast majority of college-educated immigrants, 57 percent, are U.S. citizens. Only about 11 percent (840,000) are undocumented, and the rest are either legal permanent residents or hold at least a temporary visa.

Their prosperity and our nation’s prosperity are linked. That’s why we need to reset the national mentality regarding immigration. It’s why Silicon Valley executives and employees have been so offended by the anti-immigrant emotions drawn out during the presidential election. They know the value of skilled foreign workers — their value to business enterprises and the nation’s economy.

It’s a sad indication of the wrong direction this country has taken that The New York Times has started a column called “This Week in Hate” to catalog incidents that offend the values we Americans claim to hold dear.

Hate divides us and weakens our democracy. It also costs us, and that — if nothing else — ought to bring us to our senses.

Mary Sanchez: 816-234-4752, msanchez@kcstar.com, @msanchezcolumn

IMAGE: Anuska Sampedro via Flickr

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