Free Market

How Occupational Licensing Reform Can Help Refugees Acclimate

As a global leader, the United States has championed helping those fleeing war, violence, persecution, extreme poverty, and political upheaval. The United States has hosted upwards of 80,000 refugees a year. While the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges have complicated their admission, the goal for 2022 is to let 125,000 refugees into the United States.

Utah actively participates in this broader tradition. Currently, approximately 60,000 refugees reside within the state. While, at first, new Utahns seek safety and acceptance, they are quick to turn their sights on securing employment necessary to support their families. Refugees in Utah believe that through hard work they will be afforded the opportunity to create their desired livelihood. Unfortunately, many refugees may see this aspiration turn into a nightmare when faced with unnecessary occupational licensing requirements. 

Licensing barriers prevent accomplished professionals—lawyers, doctors, cosmetologists—who are fleeing their home countries from obtaining employment commensurate with their credentials. This results in individuals’ being unable to freely apply their talent and initiative to live the American Dream.

Such onerous barriers are challenging, systemic, and intersectional. Often, refugees have limited knowledge of the English language, lack the ability to interpret licensing requirements, do not have local references, or simply do not possess the necessary documents licensing boards required to become accredited. Thus, the licensing and re-licensing processes often require refugees to rebuild their careers, repeating years of education and training. This is unfortunate as many may not have the time or money to pursue costly and stringent education requirements that accompany becoming a licensed professional. This is especially discouraging for older refugees who may be unwilling to begin again.

The inability to overcome such barriers unfairly perpetuates refugees’ already disadvantaged position, imposing requirements based on unnecessary restrictions rather than individual merits. Similarly, occupational licensing barriers maintain negative stereotypes like refugees being financially burdensome and untrustworthy, prompting discriminatory and anti-immigration sentiments.

Moreover, these stringent barriers contribute to leaving forced migrants and their families in precarious situations for prolonged periods. Such liability affects generations, resulting in stagnant economic mobility. These requirements are contrary to the land of freedom and opportunity that Utah promises to be.

Such unjust and unfair government regulations lead to refugees’ professional skills being underutilized and de-incentivizing work. As Utah recovers from the pandemic and prepares for a likely economic recession, the state should remove barriers that contribute to unrealized wages, tax revenue, and talent loss. 

This measure will help address current labor shortages, especially in highly affected areas like mental health and public schools. More than ever, these industries need the inherent resilience, diversity, and problem-solving skills refugees bring. 

Refugees are essential to strengthening Utah’s workforce and the economy. In fact, they are already contributing to Utah’s growth and success through amassing a spending power of $324 million and paying $43.1 million in state and local taxes.

Utah’s government must join states like Michigan, Colorado, and California and favor policies to facilitate refugees’ access to licensed occupations. One way to do this is to grant refugees a temporary license to practice the occupation they did in their home country while they work towards obtaining a Utah license. Such a policy is common sense as it will mean that refugees can immediately fill gaps in the workforce while also earning the money necessary to pay for Utah’s licensing requirements. Clearly, such a policy positively impacts native Utahns, consumers, and refugees.