The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Educated immigrants face big hurdles to apply their skills. That must change.

Students work with computer parts at the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, which focuses on adult education and job readiness, particularly for immigrants, in Washington. ( (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)
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Manos Antoninis is director of the Global Education Monitoring Report at UNESCO.

John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, recently told NPR that illegal immigrants in his country today are “overwhelmingly rural people.” Adding: “In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. . . . They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.”

Unfortunately, Kelly’s comments reflect how public debates often miss the fact that, with relatively few exceptions, immigrants are more educated than their hosts on average, even in countries that don’t pursue an actively selective immigration policy.

Think about it. The more educated, the more likely people feel confident to move elsewhere. They are normally better at sourcing information on which countries are going to give them better returns on their education. In fact, undocumented immigrants in the United States from Haiti and Nicaragua, for instance, have 10 years of education.

Globally, as we learned in “Building bridges not walls,” the latest Global Education Monitoring Report by UNESCO, people are actually five times more likely to move to a country if they have higher education than if they have just primary education. Of course, these statistics vary by country, and immigrants ultimately depend on immigration policies, which decide who comes in and who stays out. It also depends on what job opportunities exist. For instance, immigrants to the United States from El Salvador, Haiti, Mexico and Nicaragua without proper documentation have more education, on average, than those who came on temporary contracts.

Other statistics expose how countries’ policies can dictate immigrants’ education levels. One and a half times as many immigrants in the United States from Africa had at least a bachelor’s degree compared with other immigrants. Those from Nigeria (61 percent), South Africa (57 percent), Kenya (47 percent) and Ghana (35 percent) were among the most educated of all.

Perhaps the resistance to recognizing immigrants’ education levels is because the potential of immigrants is rarely fully tapped. According to our own analysis based on data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only a third of those who had university degrees gained outside Europe and North America work in high-skill occupations, for instance. Less than 15 percent reported their level of education matched their jobs, compared with nearly 75 percent among natives. And because of the difficulties that immigrants in the United States face to get their education recognized, it takes them 20 years to earn a salary that corresponds to their skills.

There would be a lot to gain by making the effort to improve this, not just for the people concerned but also for countries hosting them. One thing is for sure: They will certainly find it harder to “assimilate,” as Kelly put it. But the forgone earnings of underemployed immigrant college graduates in the United States could also represent $10.2 billion in lost tax revenue annually. It seems like policies are backfiring.

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