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Kentucky lawmakers discuss expanding work opportunities for refugees

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J. Tyler Franklin
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Kentucky state Rep. Nima Kulkarni is a Democrat from Louisville who champions the state's refugee and immigrant populations.

A Democratic legislator said the state’s ongoing labor shortage can be relieved by making it easier for refugees to get jobs and transfer work experience from their home countries.

Refugees often have to give up using their professional skills when resettling in the United States because of complicated licensure requirements.

Several states have created pathways for refugees to continue their careers in the U.S. by transferring qualifications and even professional licenses.

But Kentucky is behind, according to Louisville Democratic Rep. Nima Kulkarni, an immigration attorney. During a legislative meeting on Thursday, she called for studying the issue, especially as the state continues to struggle with a shortage of workers in industries like health care.

“You’ll find individuals that were nurses back home that are now working at a meat processing plant because within that given timeframe of resettlement, that’s where it’s fastest to place them in a job,” Kulkarni said.

Kulkarni said she plans to sponsor legislation that would create a task force of lawmakers and stakeholders to identify which industries could benefit from streamlining occupational licenses for some refugees.

According to the Kentucky Hospital Association, more than one in five nursing positions in the state were vacant at the end of 2021, representing more than 5,000 unfilled jobs.

But the labor shortage has been felt across industries, with advocates blaming the trend on a variety of factors like lingering hardships from the pandemic, unaffordable child care and a lack of skilled workers.

Kulkarni argues immigration has been used to address gaps in the country’s labor market since its inception.

“That’s all we’re trying to do here is identify a pool of individuals that are already living here with their families, are already work authorized. All we’re trying to do is get them into positions that they already have the experience and education in and we have a need for their services,” Kulkarni said.

Kentucky historically accepts an outsized number of refugees relative to its population. In 2019, the state took in the fifth-highest number of refugees compared to the rest of the country.

However, some Kentucky lawmakers remain skeptical.

Sen. Donald Douglas, a Republican from Lexington, said he worried that making it easier for refugees to get jobs would make it harder for other Kentuckians seeking work.

“One of the things I don’t want to get into is having immigrants, having a pathway that’s easier than our citizens here in this country. I won’t do that,” Douglas said.

Kulkarni said that there is no way it would ever be easier for a refugee to get a job in Kentucky over an American.

“This is a group of people that have been displaced from their homes, that have gone through various traumatic experiences that have found themselves in our commonwealth,” Kulkarni said.

Utah state Rep. Norm Thurston, a Republican, testified in favor of the effort, touting similar measures that passed out of his GOP-led Legislature.

“It’s one thing to say you need to learn English while you’re here, but it’s another thing to say you can’t work until you learn English. That’s a problematic policy. Because we need their services, we need their skills, we need their efforts, we need them to be productive members of our communities,” Thurston said.

Kentucky’s next legislative session begins on Jan. 3.

Ryland is the state capitol reporter for the Kentucky Public Radio Network, a group of public radio stations including WKU Public Radio. A native of Lexington, Ryland has covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin.