Q&A: Del. Kathy Tran on removing barriers for refugees entering the workforce

Delegate Kathy Tran is one of the legislature’s most staunch advocates for workforce equity in the Commonwealth. She knows firsthand the barriers that impact refugee medical professionals who come from other countries with extensive experience, but are unable to immediately start work in the U.S. After leaving Vietnam with her parents as an infant, she watched her father spend over a decade obtaining the licensure to practice dentistry in the U.S., despite already practicing in Vietnam.

Now a delegate representing the Commonwealth’s 42nd District, which includes parts of Mt. Vernon and Fairfax Station, Tran worked last session to include budget language that would establish a workgroup to identify and propose solutions to barriers for refugees entering the workforce. In this Q&A, Tran discusses the work group’s progress towards ensuring equity in Virginia’s workforce, both in health care and beyond.


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Nicole Pasia: What inspired you to implement item 52 #5h, which created a work group to identify recommendations to help refugees fully participate in Virginia’s workforce?

Del. Kathy Tran: “From my own personal experience having come to the United States as a boat refugee when I was a toddler, the importance of work, the dignity of work, and what it means for your identity, your ability to provide for yourself and your family, and, particularly for so many immigrants and refugees, the jobs that they do here in the United States doesn’t match up all the time with the jobs that they had in their professional careers in their homelands. And I see that in my own family. 

My father was a practicing dentist in Vietnam, but when we came to the United States, we didn’t have the ability for him to go immediately to study and get his licensure here, and so he wasn’t able to do that for about 14 years after we resettled. And, watching him go through that journey was really impactful on me. Then I spent some time in my own professional career working at the intersection of workforce and immigration policies. So just seeing how other states have tried to approach this issue and recognizing that everybody brings skills and experiences. How do we best tap into that, [so] they could provide for their families and better contribute to [Virginia’s] economic growth as well. 

And so this year, Church World Services reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to work on a study to get at this issue for Virginia. So I said, ‘Absolutely, and let’s figure out, how can we best create a work group that has the right stakeholders involved and also to look at this issue holistically?’” 

NP: What progress has the workgroup made since it was first formed?

KT: “The workgroup first met in July and they’re going to have a couple of meetings that will then  result in recommendations. And it’s being led by our [current] Secretary of Labor. I think that it was really important that we bring a workforce lens to the conversation, and not just an immigration lens. So [there’s someone on the team with] expertise on licensure and certifications and requirements here in Virginia. It’s being led by [Dr. Megan Healy] and I think she has [people from] the Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion, led by Dr. [Janice] Underwood and Mona Siddiqui, on her team. 

I think that is such a great dual approach to this study where you have a workforce lead but also an equity and inclusion lens. Then, thinking through the diverse stakeholders in this space both in terms of state agencies as well as groups that are involved in refugee resettlement, I did provide the Secretary of Labor with a list of national partners that I worked with prior to becoming a delegate. [The partners have] done a lot of work in terms of data analysis and also problems and practices in other states and how any of those things are unhelpful to Virginia.”

NP: What role did the pandemic play in terms of health care and workforce equity?

KT: “There were other states that took the pandemic as an opportunity to figure out how to best engage, and put to work, internationally trained medical professionals. You’re looking at New York and New Jersey. [They] might be examples of different approaches to try to reduce the barriers for entry, whether that’s looking at international experience plus some experience in the United States as qualifying factors. But I think it’s just indicative of how states have been creative in trying to make sure that everyone has health care and can access a doctor. Doctor shortages, particularly in our rural communities, are well-known, as well as [shortages of] other health care professionals. 

So, I think it’s really incumbent upon Virginia to look at not just the individuals who are graduating from our Virginia schools and U.S. institutions but also people who are coming here, sometimes with a lot of experience behind them. Whether that’s helping to reduce the challenges, if it’s fees for exams, licensure fees, helping to get access to residencies and such, [finding] ways that we could help to develop that off ramp is something that is of particular interest to me, both in the health care fields, but also more broadly across industries and occupations, particularly if there are worker shortages and [you already] have a group of talented people who want to work to their full potential. I think we need to help figure out how to make that match.”

NP: What other ways can the state address the barriers facing refugees entering the workforce?

KT: “A companion piece [to item 52#5h], I actually also got a budget amendment through for this Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to make recommendations on a statewide language access policy. I think that is also really critical to make sure that all Virginians, regardless of our English language abilities, are able to equitably access benefits and services through the state government. In this pandemic, I think we’ve really shown a light on why that’s important. I think there were a couple of stumbles our Virginia state government had made in terms of translation and availability of services for limited English-proficient individuals. I’m very much looking forward to that set of recommendations that are going to come out as well this fall. 

I think there’s clearly a workforce component to that in making sure that we have vocational English or adult basic education programs that are going to be available so that people can get the English language skills they need to enter the workforce. Sometimes it’s thinking creatively about professional licensure exams and whether it’s appropriate for those exams to be offered in another language. Or even just charting out the career pathways and licensure processes in other languages so that workers can see that and figure out what they need to be able to have in place to get licensure and practice their occupation in the U.S. 

So those are just some ideas about how English language access intersects with the workforce piece for refugee workers. I’m really excited about that consultative process that’s happening right now and look forward to those recommendations. I think it’s just going to be really important both in terms of access to health care and services during the pandemic but way beyond that as well.”

This interview was edited for clarity and length.