Commentary, Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts

June is National Immigrant Heritage Month, a designation first established by President Barack Obama in 2014. Much of this nation was built by immigrants, who brought unique cultures, faiths, languages and skills to American shores.

They also brought the hopes and dreams that all people share — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They also recognized that our Constitution and system of laws are designed to protect us all, equally.

Fairfax County is a welcoming and progressive community and much of our strength rests with our diversity. In just the past few weeks, I met a first-generation Muslim woman who is an assistant principal at a local high school.

She said her grandmother never learned to read or write, but recognized that education was the way to a better life.

“A woman’s best defense is an education” was a theme instilled by her grandmother during family visits to her small, rural village.

I also visited with a former J.E.B. Stuart (now Justice) High School graduate and friend who arrived as an abused pre-teen girl from Central America. After working hard in high school to clarify her legal status, she went on to college and created a non-profit that turns soccer tournaments into scholarship opportunities.

Working as a paralegal to pay for law school, she now runs her own law practice and recently got married. There’s the young Korean man who just graduated from the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Academy and is now a first responder in our community.

These are success stories with some chapters still to be written.

Other stories are just beginning and some demonstrate additional challenges faced by immigrants in our community. At my annual eye check up, the young female technician was new, and I asked her how long she had worked for my doctor. “Four months,” she said. Noticing her accented but nearly flawless English, I pressed a bit more, and she told me that she, her parents, and her sister had recently arrived as Afghani refugees. She was in her first year of residency in ophthalmology when her country collapsed and they had to flee with little preparation. Her excellent medical training qualified her to work in her field, but not as a physician.

She told me she would have to start medical school all over again — five years! — in the United States to qualify for a medical license. This was not the first time I had heard about medical providers who faced almost insurmountable barriers to become licensed in this country. There was the geriatric nurse who now works in a laundromat, a radiologist waiting for work as a day laborer and an x-ray technician who had been a licensed nurse in France.

Such talent, education, heart, and skill, but unable to navigate a Byzantine system that closes doors, sometimes not even indicating where the doors are, to newcomers from other countries. These barriers cannot be corrected at the local level; medical training and licensure solutions must be devised at the state and federal levels. There is no time to waste.

There is a health care crisis in this country and providers are not getting younger. The average age of a registered nurse is in the mid-40s; for a physician, the average age is 53. Immigrants bring innumerable talents to their adopted country. Let’s open more doors to opportunity!

Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at