Refugee Labor Mobility: An Alternative Pathway to Safety


It’s no secret that U.S. employers are facing critical skills shortages.

Globally, millions of refugees have the skills to help address these gaps—and employers would be eager to engage them if skilled migration was seen as a viable option for this cohort. But how can you connect refugees, displaced and insecure as they seek a safer place for themselves and their families, with international employment opportunities, and open up skilled migration pathways? One model is that of Talent Beyond Boundaries (TBB), an international nonprofit.  After building successful pilot programs in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, TBB is now launching in the United States, and I’ve begun working with them as their U.S. Director.

U.S. immigration law is extraordinarily complex, I know this firsthand as an immigration lawyer and an AILA member. I’m a strong believer in refugee resettlement as a life-saving tool and a benefit to U.S. communities—and I know how important immigration lawyers can be in helping refugees successfully relocate to safety.

Yet, resettlement on its own is woefully insufficient to respond to the scale of displacement today. Many refugees live in countries of asylum where they may be safe from the immediate conflict or fear of persecution in their country of origin, but where they cannot legally work or study, and face a lifetime of limbo.

Addressing the refugee crisis requires dramatically expanding refugee resettlement programs—but also thinking beyond resettlement; expanding the number of pathways that refugees can use to reach safety.

As TBB outlined in our recent report, Refugee Labor Mobility in the United States: Obstacles and Opportunities, we believe that U.S. employment-based visas, such as H-1B, EB-3, and O-1 visas can allow refugees to relocate based on their skills, while also benefiting U.S. employers and communities.

To build this solution at scale, U.S. government agencies will need to address obstacles that refugees face in accessing employment-based visas. That’s difficult but doable. Here’s how:

  • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of State (DOS) should issue guidance and train adjudicators to use the flexibility that U.S. immigration law already provides. This should include waiving passport requirements in some situations and accepting alternative evidence of civil documents and employment documentation in visa petitions. Further, DOS should revise its guidance on passport waivers to provide accurate information about statelessness and to expand passport exemptions beyond nationals of Communist countries.
  • USCIS and DOS should also issue its guidance publicly, advancing transparency and advancing awareness of refugee labor mobility opportunities.
  • USCIS and DOS should establish a central point person to coordinate on employment-based visa petitions and applications for refugees.
  • DOS should amend regulations to allow visa applicants to attend visa interviews at secure facilities, connecting consular officials at inaccessible consular locations via video teleconferencing. This would not alter existing biometric requirements.
  • USCIS and DOS should address challenges common across the U.S. immigration system, including long processing times and interview backlogs.

The immigration bar and AILA members can play a critical role in building refugee labor mobility in the United States. Immigration lawyers can spread the word about TBB’s programs to their clients. We can also assist refugees in navigating the rocky road of employment-based visas.

This effort is a major step in the right direction. We know our immigration laws and policies need to be reformed. Let’s continue to advocate for the policy changes that will improve U.S. immigration for newcomers, employers, and our wider communities.

by Betsy Fisher