Redefining Qualified: Education in the Migration Debate

My op-ed  about tech education initiatives for refugees and how we talk about refugees’ economic and social contributions was originally published in Our World on January 16, 2019. The hyperlinks/citations in my original submission didn’t make it into the final publication, so I’ve reproduced the article below with the hyperlinks added.

I recently spent an academic year as a Fulbright Scholar learning about vocational education and job training programs intended to promote refugees’ labor market integration in Germany and Sweden. My interviews with government officials, representatives from private industry, and direct service providers revealed how a strong emphasis on formal qualifications in both countries often presented hurdles for refugees seeking skilled employment; some refugees possessed university degrees or undertook vocational training before arriving in Europe, but lacked documentation to certify their qualifications. Meanwhile, some refugees struggled to gain proficiency in their host country’s language, or had educational backgrounds or skills that didn’t match their local labor markets. Lengthy and low-paying apprenticeships, vocational education and training (VET) programs, and other long-standing, highly structured employment initiatives in both countries sometimes failed to meet the needs of refugees supporting dependents, or those seeking to send money to their families back home.

Most of my interviewees working in government or in the skilled trades sector (e.g., engineering, construction, manufacturing) discussed the “traditional” education and training pathways mentioned above, and the complexities involved in recertifying refugees’ qualifications. Certainly, examining how refugees have adapted to these pathways and filled labor shortages in certain industries are important to understanding how Europe has responded to the 2015 “refugee crisis.” However, I instead want to turn to educational initiatives emerging from the tech sector that seek to challenge rigid notions of what being “educated” or “qualified” look like.

A recent Migration Policy Institute Europe report assessed the potential of coding schools across Europe and the United States, including CodeYourFuture (United Kingdom), HackYourFuture (Netherlands), ReDI School of Digital Integration (Germany), and the Refugee Coding Project (U.S.), in preparing refugees for software development jobs (disclosure: I was a Visiting Fellow at MPI Europe and interviewed the author of the report in Berlin during my Fulbright year). The report noted that coding schools can provide a pathway for refugees to gain in-demand skills in the IT sector within a relatively short period of time, while bypassing some of the formal qualification barriers that often prohibit refugees from entering other occupations. Moreover, the programs suit a variety of learning styles: some are self-guided, while some are more structured and feature substantial contact hours between students and teachers.

Online learning platforms can also facilitate nontraditional pathways to earning “traditional” qualifications. Kiron, a non-profit launched in Germany in 2015, aims to facilitate refugees’ access to higher education institutions in their host countries by providing free online courses in business, economics, computer science, mechanical engineering, social work, or political science. After two years of online study, refugees can then transfer to one of Kiron’s partner universities to continue studying for a bachelor’s degree.

New tech initiatives, like the ones mentioned above, can help mitigate barriers to education and work for refugees. However, given concerns surrounding the “innovation turn” in the humanitarian industry, we should be similarly wary of viewing tech solutions and the market as sources of “liberation” for refugees. Tech projects are sometimes developed without input from refugees, and consequently, don’t always meet their needs. Even when they do, such projects often end up disproportionately benefiting the already highly educated or digitally proficient, thereby deepening existing inequalities among refugees.

More fundamentally, for refugees, self-reliance and social inclusion encompass much more than economic security. While we can certainly support skill-acquisition programs or nontraditional forms of vocational education developed by the private sector – and challenge traditional ideas of what it means to be “educated” – we shouldn’t let governments off the hook in addressing issues of broader social concern for refugees. After all, tech can’t eliminate systemic racial and ethnic discrimination in the labor market, replace the importance of supporting refugees as they learn the language of their host country, or mitigate the challenges they may face while navigating the housing market.

In October, I began graduate studies at the University of Oxford, where my family’s history and my academic study of forced migration now intersect. My father was granted protection in the U.S. after Laos fell to Communist forces in 1975. He told me that he never could have dreamed of one day raising a child who would not only earn an undergraduate degree, but also a graduate degree. Some of my well-meaning friends point to my academic record, or to my father’s societal contributions as a translator and interpreter for newly arrived Laotian refugees in Portland, Oregon, as reasons to welcome refugees and their children to America.

We should certainly recognize refugees’ educational accomplishments and economic contributions, including those of my father and those of the millions of refugees who have arrived in Europe over the past few years. But we should also critique the respectability politics that governs so many conversations and policy debates surrounding migration. Recent efforts to prepare refugees for the digital economy may indeed provide an avenue for some to achieve a level of economic security. But we must also remember to affirm the inherent dignity of refugees, for whom full humanity is so often denied, and whose worth is so often assessed through market criteria.

Narintohn Luangrath was based in Brussels, Belgium as a 2016-2017 Fulbright-Schuman Grantee. She is currently a Clarendon Fund Scholar and graduate student at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford.

The Kerner Commission Report at 50: Treating Racism as a Public Health Issue

“The Kerner Commission declared: ‘It is time now to turn with all the purpose at our command to the major unfinished business of this nation […] It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens —urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group.’ Local health departments can help fulfill some of American democracy’s unfulfilled promises by employing interventions that address racial disparities in health. Those of us working on the frontlines in public health have the power to translate the values and goals articulated in the Kerner Report into programs and policies—local solutions befitting our communities.”

Read the full article, co-authored with Dr. Leana Wen, in the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC) newsletter. Read more about #Kerner50 here.

The Role of US Mayors and Health Commissioners in Combating Health Disparities

“Health enables citizens to engage more fully as members of a polity. Enhancing our understanding of good governance—outside the confines of party identification—can provide insight into how city-level interventions aimed at addressing health disparities can also improve employment outcomes, housing access, neighborhood safety, and numerous other social outcomes.”

Read the full article, co-authored with Dr. Leana Wen, in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH).

Making Public Health Visible

In recognition of National Public Health Week, Dr. Leana Wen and I wrote a blog post for Front Lines, the Big Cities Health Coalition blog. Click here to read the full blog post.

“When public health is invisible, we only end up talking about it when things go wrong; people tend to think about public health agencies as entities that respond to infectious disease outbreaks or shut down a restaurant due to health code violations. We frequently think about health as healthcare, but what determines how long and how well we live is less about what happens in the doctor’s office and more about where we live, the air we breathe, and the availability of other resources in our communities. At the Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD), we believe that all issues – education, housing, employment, public safety, and beyond – can and should be tied back to health. We are committed to making the progress earned through public health visible, and to make the case for incorporating health-in-all policies across the City.”

‘Real American’ immigrants fight to preserve the best of the U.S.

This op-ed was originally published in The Baltimore Sun on March 5, 2018.

In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao emerged victorious in a civil war that lasted over 20 years. More than 300,000 Laotians fled to neighboring Thailand, where they lived in refugee camps before being resettled in other countries. Those who couldn’t escape were often sent to “re-education camps,” where they faced forced labor, torture and execution. Eight thousand miles away, my Laotian father, then an undergraduate at the University of Northern Iowa, contemplated his future: As U.S.-Lao diplomatic relations quickly deteriorated, his USAID-sponsored academic scholarship was in jeopardy, as was his legal status in the country. Without financial support or a legal right to stay in the U.S., a return to Laos would mean imprisonment in a re-education camp and possibly death.

But our country did the right thing: The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), now the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), allowed my father to stay, complete his studies and work. While in Iowa, he met my mother, a student from Thailand. They eventually married and moved to Portland, Ore., where they became naturalized citizens.

From receiving asylum and humanitarian protection, to qualifying for green cards and citizenship, members of my family have benefited from a range of services provided by the legacy INS and its superseding agency, USCIS. Eager to give back to my country through public service and to contribute to the work of an agency that made my parents’ lives in the United States possible, I spent the summer after my college graduation in 2014 working as a student trainee at USCIS headquarters, where I provided my colleagues with information on the gang violence driving unaccompanied immigrant children to flee Central America and seek refuge in the U.S.

USCIS provides invaluable services, not just to aspiring citizens like my parents, but also to those who seek humanitarian protection, or who want to work or study in this country. That’s why I’m dismayed by USCIS’s decision last month to fundamentally reframe its mission. The agency removed a passage that contextualizes its services as securing “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” and erased all mention of its responsibility to promote “an awareness and understanding of citizenship.”

In a corresponding email to his staff, USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna noted that while benefits applicants and petitioners should be “treated with the greatest respect and courtesy,” he reminded his colleagues to never forget that they “serve the American people.”

Combined with recent moves to end family reunification and DACA, changes to the USCIS mission statement underscore the Trump administration’s larger efforts to redefine who counts as American. Thus, Mr. Cissna’s comments imply two things: first, that the interests of “the American people” and those of immigrants applying for benefits or of U.S. citizens petitioning for their non-citizen family members are necessarily in conflict; and second, that immigrants like my parents — despite living here for over 40 years and successfully navigating a long, challenging naturalization process — will never be considered “real Americans” in the eyes of this administration.

While the perpetual foreigner stereotype is often weaponized against non-white populations more broadly, it is most frequently wielded against Asian-Americans, invoking painful historical memories, cutting at their sense of belonging, and intensifying their feelings of inferiority and isolation. Mr. Cissna’s email, coupled with his changes to the mission statement, conceptualizes Americanness as a matter of birth and lineage, rather than something to which anyone can aspire. Put more bluntly, his language and actions amount to a dangerous whitewashing of U.S. history.

My father and mother took their oaths of citizenship in 1982 and 1987, respectively. And they take their roles as citizens seriously: They vote in local and national elections, attend town halls held by their representatives and volunteer in their community. They also know that being an active citizen means speaking out when your government fails to live up to its values and teaching your children to do the same. While the Trump administration continues to otherize and dehumanize immigrants, officials can be assured that “real Americans” like myself and my parents will continue to use the tools we learned as citizens to preserve what’s best about our country.

Hail the (Refugee) Maintainers: Economic Inclusion and the Refugee Admissions Program

This article originally appeared in Penn Law’s Journal of Law and Social Change (JLASC) blog.

If you have lived in my hometown of Portland, Oregon at some point in the past thirty years, your mail may have been delivered to your home by my cousin. If you visited a dentist, another cousin of mine may have greeted you at the reception desk. And if you renovated your home with new fixtures, my aunt may have assembled those items in a factory.

Since fleeing Laos after the country’s civil war, my relatives’ economic contributions have touched the lives of countless Portlanders. Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell’s essay “Hail the Maintainers” and their New York Times op-ed published last summer acknowledges people like my family members – Laotian refugees – who do the vital, but often uncelebrated work that keeps society functioning. My family members started arriving in the United States during the late 1970s, along with hundreds of thousands of other Southeast Asian refugees. They were part of a migration that spurred Congress to pass the Refugee Act of 1980, which provided the legal basis for today’s refugee admissions program.

That’s why I was disheartened when the Trump Administration announced last fall its plans to cap refugee admissions at 45,000 in FY 2018, a historically low number. Worse still, the Administration is on track to miss its own admissions target: at the current rate, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) projects that only 21,292 refugees will be resettled by the end of the fiscal year. Now is not the time for the United States to shirk its humanitarian responsibilities, especially when 22.5 million refugees are currently displaced worldwide. Like in Portland, numerous cities and towns across our country have been enriched by the arrival of refugees who work alongside us. And as many of these same cities and towns feel the effects of shrinking populations, cutting refugee admissions and depriving these communities of much needed contributors is something we cannot afford.

So what can localities in the U.S. learn from our European counterparts, many of whom are facing demographic challenges and labor shortages? While spending last year as a Fulbright grantee to the European Union, I interviewed local government officials, public employment staff, and representatives from private industry across Germany and Sweden. Europe has been transitioning from emergency response measures to developing robust integration initiatives for its millions of refugee arrivals, and private enterprises in these localities have played critical roles in this process.

In Germany, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – often located within the skilled trades sector and encompassing jobs as diverse as engineering, IT, manufacturing, construction, carpentry, and metalwork – have struggled to attract native-born workers in recent years. In response, SMEs in several German cities have worked with public employment agencies and local government authorities to offer refugees specialized training programs, internships, and other professional placements. SMEs are the backbone of the German economy, and the “maintainers” working in these industries are increasingly foreign-born. Similarly, in Sweden, the Fast Track program identifies refugees with skills relevant to sectors facing labor shortages, and matches them with available jobs. In addition, both countries have developed innovative public-private partnerships and programs to assess refugees’ skills and qualifications (i.e., in the absence of formal documentation), and connect them with work and language training opportunities early in the integration process.

Of course, the initiatives developed in Germany and Sweden will not completely resolve their respective labor shortages or demographic challenges. Refugees often arrive without pre-existing professional or personal contacts and limited knowledge of the host country’s language. Long, dangerous migration journeys or prolonged stays in refugee camps can result in trauma, physical health problems, deskilling, and challenges adapting to host countries’ formal economies.

But community organizations and people like you and me can help mitigate these disadvantages. My father served as a translator and interpreter for refugees at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) in Portland during the early 1980s. He helped Laotians fill out legal documents, including those pertaining to employment and residency, thereby easing their transition to life in the Rose City.

Refugees brought in $63 billion more in government revenues over the past decade than they used in public benefits, while often filling jobs that would otherwise go unfilled. The Trump Administration’s efforts to suppress these positive findings is unsurprising, but equally unsurprising is the fact that refugees are more likely to be employed than native-born Americans, thanks to the refugee resettlement program’s emphasis on getting new arrivals into jobs as quickly as possible. But we can improve upon this work: increasing early investments in education, language learning, and job training programs, perhaps similar to the targeted efforts undertaken in Germany and Sweden, would not only help refugees find employment quickly, but also improve their chances of upward economic mobility over time.

As researchers and advocates like myself push back against the Trump Administration’s claim that refugees are a financial drain, it is also important to remember that refugees deserve our assistance not because they provide a financial benefit to our country, but because they fled persecution, war, and other horrific situations. My Laotian family members are alive and thriving today because of the refugee admissions program, while their contributions have made Portland a better place to live. As I begin a new chapter – working in public health in Baltimore – I am proud to be a “maintainer,” and follow the path paved by those who made my life in the United States possible.

Children and Forced Migration: Durable Solutions During Transient Years


My chapter, “No Date on the Door: Direct Provision Housing, Child Asylum Seekers, and Ireland’s Violations of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child,” was published in Children and Forced Migration: Durable Solutions During Transient Years last fall. The chapter examined the asylum application system in Ireland, focusing on the negative impacts of direct provision accommodation on the physical and mental health of child asylum seekers. Direct provision is a full room and board system introduced in 2000 in response to a housing crisis in Dublin arising from a dramatic increase in asylum seeker arrivals. I explore how the treatment of child asylum seekers in direct provision illustrates Ireland’s failure to uphold the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Referencing relevant articles of the CRC, I discuss the material deprivation and social exclusion faced by children in direct provision centers across Ireland. You can learn more about the edited volume here.