Some of the most challenging issues faced by immigrants – documented, undocumented, asylees, and refugees alike – are related to finding employment. The key to successful integration of newcomers into society rests upon their ability to find employment and support themselves and their families, yet many barriers can stand in the way of a steady income in America.  In many cases, the job market in Massachusetts may vary from the immigrant’s previous one, and skills may not always be transferable. Language barriers and illiteracy can also pose serious challenges for immigrants seeking self-sufficiency.  Furthermore, immigrants must navigate an unfamiliar legal system in order to obtain the right to work.  While employment is clearly the cornerstone to success in America, an immigrant’s path to employment is often a major challenge.

Work Authorization

As a refugee, you may work immediately upon arrival to the United States, while an asylee may work as soon as they are granted asylum. Both refugees and asylees can obtain an unrestricted Social Security card, which is all you need to present to an employer (although other documents can be used to show eligibility to work as well). When you arrive in the U.S. as a refugee, an Application for Employment Authorization (Form I-765) will be filed for you in order to receive an Employment Authorization Document (EAD), although this document is not necessary in order to be legally able to work. While you are waiting for your EAD, you can present your Arrival-Departure Record (Form I-94,) to your employer as proof of your permission to work in the United States. There is no fee to apply for your first EAD as a refugee.

Read more about work authorization for refugees at UCSIC’ pages here and here.

Unemployment benefits

Unemployment compensation is available to those who are legally authorized to work in the U.S., and who are temporarily out of work, without fault on their parts. From the Department of Unemployment Assistance: “If you’re out of work and able to work, you may be eligible for temporary income called unemployment insurance (UI). If you qualify, you receive weekly payments to help cover your living expenses while you search for new employment. The amount you receive is based on what you were paid in the last year.”

To be eligible for unemployment benefits, you must:

-Have earned at least $4,700 during the last 4 completed calendar quarters, and 30 times the weekly benefit amount you would be eligible to collect
-Be legally authorized to work in the U.S.
-Be unemployed, or working significantly reduced hours, through no fault of your own
-Be able and willing to begin suitable work without delay when offered.

Read more about eligibility criteria via hereYou can apply for unemployment compensation online, by phone, and in person. For more information on filing for Unemployment benefits as a non-U.S. citizen, see here

The Department of Unemployment Assistance offers information in multiple languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, Haitian Creole, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian, Khmer, Lao, Italian, French, Korean and Arabic.

Your rights as a worker in Massachusetts

If you are denied a job or are fired because you are not a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident, you may be the victim of unlawful discrimination. If you believe you have been discriminated against on the basis of being a non-U.S. citizen, you can contact the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices (OSC) at 1-800-255-7688 or 1-800-237-2515 (TDD for hearing impaired). You can read more about the Immigrant and Employee Rights Section, which enforces the anti-discrimination provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, here

If you work in Massachusetts, you have the right to fair wages, a safe workplace, workers’ compensation, and more. Read more about workers’ rights and safety in Massachusetts at here.

If you think your employer is breaking workplace laws, you can call the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Fair Labor Hotline at (617) 727-3465, or (617) 727-4765 for hearing-impaired individuals.

Read more about employment and unemployment and seek legal representation at, and find legal aid via MassLegalServices here.

Job training and preparedness

Refugees are eligible to receive assistance from the Refugee Employment Services, which entails access to programs supported by federal and state funds. Assistance includes:

-Orientation to the American Workplace
-English Literacy instruction for non-literate or low literacy level refugees.
-Teaching soft and hard skills with the goal of helping refugees obtain and retain a job;
-job development;
-employment readiness, search and job placement;
-90-day post-employment follow-up;
-Career laddering opportunities and job upgrades; and
-Assistance accessing higher education.

Massachusetts One-Stop Career Centers offer additional employment and training services for job seekers and employers. Services include job search assistance, coaching on job search skills, workshops, and access to networking groups.

If you need to acquire new skills in order to become re-employed, the Training Opportunities Program (TOP) allows you to collect unemployment benefits while you attend full-time training for new job skills. You must submit a completed TOP application within the first 20 weeks that you receive your unemployment benefits, and additional eligibility requirements apply.

Visit the Office of Refugee Resettlement for additional employment resources, including information on re-credentialing of internationally trained refugee professionals.


Refugees who wish to start a new business, or who need help to sustain or expand and existing business in the areas of Greater Boston, Greater Worcester, and Greater Springfield, may receive intensive training, support services, and ongoing technical assistance from the Massachusetts Refugee Enterprise Achievement Program (MassREAP). MassREAP also provides access to low-interest loans and credit-building activities, and can help facilitate partnerships with lending institutions to help participants establish and improve their credit and secure business loans.

Similarly, the Office for Refugee Resettlement helps refugees who receive public assistance or subsidies, and/or who lack the financial resources, credit history, or personal assets to qualify for business loans develop, expand or maintain their own businesses and become financially independent through their Microenterprise Development program and Individual Development Accounts (IDAs).

Skills Training Programs

Skills training programs help prepare individuals for specific lines of work, and many are free or low-cost. Because some such programs receive state or federal funding, there may be certain eligibility criteria, including immigration status, but refugees and asylees should generally be qualified. Se below for examples of skills training programs in Massachusetts.

IINE offers two industry skills training programs, both of which have income and residency stipulations: the Hospitality Training Program (HTP), which prepares students for careers in the hotel industry, and the Service Industry Training Program (SITP), which prepares students for careers in hospitals and banking.

In addition to English and Literacy classes, the Immigrant Learning Center offers an English for Entrepreneurs Class to help students practice dialogue and improve English grammar while learning to write a business plan and the basics of starting a business.

Jewish Vocational Services (JVS) has provided direct employment services to local refugee populations for over 40 years. These services are offered to local refugees, political asylees, Cuban and Haitian entrants, and certified victims of human trafficking. Services include job search assistance, vocational English language classes, job placement and post-employment support.

JVS offer skills programs, including the Bank Teller Training Program, Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Training Program, Hospitality Training Program, Pharmacy Technician Training Program, as well as a Transitions to Work program for individuals with a documented disability. Read more about requirements and eligibility on their pages.

Found in Translation is an organization that provides Medical Interpreter Certificate training, job placement, and ongoing career development to low-income bilingual women in the Greater Boston Area. The program is free-of-charge and includes support such as on-site childcare, transportation assistance and mentoring. To be eligible you need to be a woman who is fluent in English as well as a second language, be homeless, formerly homeless and low-income, and eligible to work in the U.S. Read more about the eligibility requirements here.

The City of Boston works with the Chinese Progressive Association to host an English for Customer Service Job Training program, for low-income Boston residents interested in a retail job.

Additional Resources for Employment

Visit the Refugee Center Online for a thorough step-by-step guide on how to find a job.

Download ORI’s Community Partners Directory here.

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