After years working in environmental law, Suzette Brooks Masters left the legal profession to focus on another often-overlooked topic: highly skilled immigrants. In her role as program director for migrations at the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a New York-based family foundation, Masters helps oversee a collaborative network of organizations nationwide that support the nearly 2 million professional immigrants in the U.S. today who face underemployment or unemployment. Additionally, the foundation provides grants to these organizations. In October, Masters received the outstanding leadership award from Upwardly Global, a nonprofit that helps skilled immigrants build their professional lives in the U.S. Masters discusses why any business should consider hiring highly skilled immigrants to stay competitive in a global marketplace.
What first drew you to advocate for immigrants?
It was a rather long process of self-realization that led me to switch careers and devote myself completely to immigration issues. I had spent more than a decade practicing corporate and environmental law, but needed to satisfy my social justice leanings as well. The epiphany came in the late 1990s when President Clinton enacted welfare reform laws that stripped American residents of rights and benefits simply because of their immigration status. I couldn’t square this with America’s legacy as a nation of immigrants or with my family’s experience finding refuge and opportunity here. The America I believed in made it possible for newcomer families like mine to achieve success in just one generation. I wanted America to continue to play that role for others. I left law and began the slow work of earning my immigrant advocate stripes. I am now the program director for migrations at the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a family foundation in New York City.
In your role as a program director at the J.M. Kaplan Fund, what issues have you focused on?
When I joined the J.M. Kaplan Fund it became clear to me early on that there was amazing work happening all over the country to integrate newcomers into their adopted new homes, to help them succeed, and to help the communities where they settled thrive. I wanted specifically to lift up this great work and the people and ideas behind their success, try to create a larger community of practice around the work, and stimulate its replication and dissemination. In 2008, the fund launched the E Pluribus Unum awards, a new awards program with generous cash prizes to recognize exceptionally innovative, effective and replicable immigrant integration initiatives by government, business and nonprofits.
Hundreds of great programs to help immigrants contribute to their adopted homeland apply for recognition each year and only four winners are selected. The winning programs are very diverse, ranging from a workforce program that helps foreigners with professional skills transition into the white collar workforce to a vocational English program that works with lower-skill workers in industries like building maintenance.
What kinds of challenges or adjustments do skilled immigrants face when entering the workforce?
The skilled immigrant population is an overlooked and misunderstood segment of the immigrant population. Skilled immigrants face particular challenges in entering the professional workforce, challenges that stem from a lack of local professional networks, missteps in the job search process (e.g., resumes with pictures and birth dates), and misunderstanding by many employers about how to assess foreign degrees, credentials and experience. But make no mistake, these professionals have so much to offer and can hit the ground running. Immigrants and employers have so much to gain by overcoming these challenges.
What can employers do?
Employers would be well served to expand diversity and inclusion efforts to include this population for three main reasons. First, demographics are inexorable: the U.S. workforce is rapidly changing and those changes will only become more manifest over time. Between 1994 and 2004, the native-born labor force grew by 7 percent, while the immigrant labor force grew by 66 percent. Second, employers should want to prioritize immigrants in their recruiting efforts to bring needed skills in our “hourglass” economy, filling jobs at the high and low ends of the labor market. Finally, there are excellent resources available for employers to help them understand and recruit from the skilled immigrant population. Organizations like Upwardly Global and the Welcome Back Initiative work directly with employers seeking diverse, experienced, trained and work-authorized talent from all sectors.
I believe American companies have so much to gain from America’s increasingly diverse workforce. The plain truth is that American prosperity depends on the successful integration of our immigrant workforce.
Jeffrey Cattel is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.