Mexican Health Care Workers Retrain For U.S. Jobs

By Ruxandra Guidi
April 25, 2011

EL CENTRO, Calif. -- Early on a Saturday morning, a group of Mexican nurses came together for English class in California’s Imperial Valley. They’re eagerly discussing the many different terms used by patients and doctors to describe depression.

Most of these folks have very basic English skills. For starters, they’ll need to broaden their vocabulary and comprehension in order to find a nursing job in the U.S.

In the classroom next door, the nurses are one step closer to that promise of work in America. With his book open to a chapter about diagnostics, Rosendo Gil read about a hypothetical patient’s case.

Gil is a nurse from Mexicali. He got permission to work in the U.S. about six years ago. Now he lives in Imperial Valley.

"The first work that I got was working in the fields as a farm worker, and I feel very proud to be farm worker," said Gil. "Now, I'm working as a health educator. But I still need more education, and my challenge and my goal is to become a registered nurse."

Gil said the education requirements are an essential part of the re-certification process to practice medicine in the U.S. But he added there are other things he has to learn—such as the culture and responsibilities of nursing here—that are just as important.

"The medications are very similar, but the differences are the legal issues, and how the nurses perform their activities as nurses," said Gil. "We don't have critical thinking or we're not allowed to make diagnostics, but in the United States, we can do that."

Photo by Ruxandra Guidi
Fernando Calderon, a case manager at the Welcome Back Center's Imperial Valley office, is originally from Mexicali, Mexico, and helps many other Mexican professionals like him navigate the re-certification process.

Most of the students paid $500 for this 10-week course organized by the Welcome Back Center, a partnership between a community college and a health care provider. The Center’s mission is to help internationally-trained health care workers arriving in California, where there’s a historic shortage of nurses.

According to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, there are more than 1.3 million college-educated immigrants in the U.S. who are either unemployed or underemployed. One in five are working in unskilled jobs, and a majority of underemployed immigrants come from Africa and Latin America.

Marlene Ruiz is director of education and consulting for Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, where the patient population can benefit from such training.

"We have a charge to try to match our nursing population to our demographics in our membership," said Ruiz.

But that’s not so easy. In this economy, it’s tough for anybody to get a job, American or not. Twenty-five-year-old Paloma Arbizu Dominguez is currently studying for her certification exam. She said that finding her current certified nursing assistant job was hard.

"I went door to door and filled out applications and these people never called me back," she said. "Maybe it's because they don't have enough work in the Imperial Valley? Or maybe it's because they give them to people who study in the U.S."

There are no guarantees that Arbizu Dominguez will find a job as a registered nurse when she’s ready for it next year. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing there are more than 13,000 nursing students at American schools, and Arbizu Dominguez will be competing for jobs against them.