Haddi, a naturalized citizen from the Gambia, West Africa, helps a customer at her boutique in the Malcom Shabazz African Market in Harlem. Haddi, who asked to be identified by only her first name, moved with her husband to New York 27 years ago. Though she says she has a college degree and worked in a bank back home, she ended up working on a factory assembly line in the U.S.
Ed Lefkowicz

Back home in Guinea, West Africa, Nasser Diallo had a law degree and a good job working as a political journalist for a radio station. That all came to an end in 2009, he said, when the military abruptly opened fire at a protest he was covering, massacring dozens “until they ran out of bullets.”

Diallo never went home again. Word reached him that the military government was hunting him, he said. Fearing the worst, he fled to Paris, and then to the U.S., where he was granted political asylum. But once here, Diallo’s career stalled. Without university transcripts, he said, he couldn’t find work commensurate with his experience.

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“I had to make a very, very tough choice to go back to school and restart from scratch,” says Diallo, 33. “I didn’t have a choice. I was going nowhere. By the time I’m going to graduate, I’ll be maybe 50.”

Diallo is part of America’s rapidly growing population of black immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom are highly educated and underemployed. Although a handful of states are attempting to help expats like Diallo climb the economic ladder, many African immigrants face obstacles, including obtaining licenses that states require to work in educational, medical and other professions.

At home they were doctors, lawyers, accountants or professors. Here they are cabdrivers, parking lot attendants, cashiers or nannies. They often live in poverty, though, as a group, they are more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree or higher than any other immigrant group, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

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(One exception to this: Refugees, who have a different immigration status from political asylees like Diallo, tend to be less educated, demographers say.)

“We’ve all heard about brain drain,” says Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst with the MPI. “This is brain waste.”

According to the MPI, 1 in 5 college-educated immigrants from all countries is unemployed or underemployed.

Other immigrant groups, like Latin American professionals, face similar challenges. But African immigrants in general have a harder time integrating into the American workforce, demographers say.

Africans from relatively prosperous, English-speaking countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa have an easier time navigating the system, according to Jeff Gross, director of the New Americans Integration Institute at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. 

But others struggle. Among recently arrived African, foreign-educated immigrants, the underemployment rate is 39 percent, compared with 20 percent of the college-educated U.S. workers and 25 percent of all foreign-educated immigrants, according to the MPI. 

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The reasons—from a lack of professional networks to cultural barriers to misguided advice to racial discrimination—are complex, demographers say. Many African immigrants educated abroad have trouble getting licensed in the U.S.—and licensing requirements vary widely from state to state and from profession to profession.

A law degree from a West African university is the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in the U.S. Then again, an engineer will have a much easier time than, say, a doctor who graduated from medical school in Senegal. That doctor faces hurdles getting licensed and may have to start all over again—and then wait years to get placed in a postgraduate residency-training program, Gross says.

“If you’re a nurse or a doctor, there are so many federal and state requirements that you have to fill. It’s very, very complicated and time-consuming,” Gross says.

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Whatever the profession, Gross says, “Foreign degrees in general are often less valued than U.S. degrees.”

Many immigrants pay hundreds of dollars to a service to validate their educational credentials. Some services are “rip-offs,” others are legitimate, Gross says. Even in the latter case, different states accept documentation from different credentialing services.

“And if you don’t come to a job interview and approach it with an American attitude, an American style and an American résumé, that credentialing document won’t do you much good,” Gross says.

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Some states are trying to streamline the process. Michigan, for instance, worked closely with Upwardly Global, an employment advocacy agency for immigrants, to craft clear-cut licensing guides for 20 professions, so immigrants know exactly how to proceed, says Karen Phillippi, deputy director of the Michigan Office for New Americans. The state plans to add 10 new guides each year.

Last year the state passed a “Barber Bill” (pdf). In the past, barbers needed 2,000 hours of training to get licensed. Now experienced barbers who can prove they have recent experience and training can drastically reduce the number of instruction hours required to get a license. Meanwhile, African-style hair braiders have sued in 12 states, arguing that strict licensing requirements impede their ability to earn a living.

In February, a bill was introduced in the Illinois General Assembly declaring a legal immigrant cannot be denied a professional license because of their federal immigration status. Some cities have become part of a Welcoming America network, crafting policies to aid immigrants. The program started 10 years ago in Tennessee and expanded to a national initiative. Shelbyville, Tenn., which experienced a sudden influx of Somali immigrants, was one of the first cities to tackle this approach, says Rachel Peric, Welcoming America’s deputy director.

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“The dividends of investing in this community have a multiplier effect,” says Tadd Wamester, director of regional growth and online programs for Upwardly Global. “This should be looked at as going across generations. Investing in parents is also investing in children.”

Read more at Stateline at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Teresa Wiltz is senior staff writer at Stateline, the journalism outlet of the Pew Charitable Trusts.