Mildred Telica Castillo, who was a lawyer in her homeland...

Mildred Telica Castillo, who was a lawyer in her homeland of Nicaragua, describes the immense pressure of starting over again in the U.S., during a March interview at the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Since Mildred Telica Castillo came to the U.S. from Costa Rica in February, the former attorney said the pressure of trying to start her career all over again in a new country has been immense.

Castillo said she is taking English language courses in the hopes of seeking training and job placement resources through the state’s Professional Pathways for High-Skilled Immigrants program. The goal of the program, launched in 2021 and expanded this year, is to help immigrants with professional, specialized backgrounds land jobs in their fields.

“I’m very worried and I’m trying to look for a job,” Castillo, 40, who first spoke to Newsday in April, said in Spanish. “I have two girls and have to make sure they’re being educated. I’ve got to spread myself out — as a mother, as a wife, and I also have to take care of myself. So, it becomes complicated to find work.”

 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • New York state has expanded its Professional Pathways for High-Skilled Immigrants program.
  • The program is designed to help immigrants with professional, specialized backgrounds land jobs in their fields.
  • Supporters say the program is increasingly critical as the number of immigrants in the region rises.

Castillo, who now lives in Uniondale, said she’s applied to many jobs since arriving as a political refugee earlier this year.

Originally from Nicaragua — where she practiced law — Castillo said she left her home country for Costa Rica four years ago due to “the socio-political situation with Nicaraguan President [Daniel] Ortega’s repression of his people.”

Under Ortega, the country has jailed or expelled religious orders, civic groups and charities, most recently the Red Cross. In March, the Vatican closed its Nicaraguan embassy, citing the country's proposal to suspend diplomatic relations.

Now,  Castillo said she’s eager “to become an attorney here,” but said it’s been difficult to find her way in a new country and job market.

“I have all my original paperwork and documentation of my qualifications,” she said. “But I don’t have a lot of information about where to go.”

 Becoming fluent in English is the first step.  To become a lawyer in the U.S. requires passing the bar exam in English.

“There’s this misconception of the immigrant community that it’s only working-class folks, and that’s not the case,” said Elise Castillo, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center (CARECEN), a nonprofit providing social and legal services for immigrants on Long Island  and the agency chosen earlier this year to oversee the Professional Pathways program for Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Mildred Castillo, no relation to Elise Castillo, said she’s hopeful that CARECEN and state programming can set her on the right track.

 

The Professional Pathways program, overseen by the New York Department of State, launched in 2021 as a $1.1 million pilot project meant to help connect high-skilled immigrants with the services and training needed to help them find work in local industries similar to the careers they left in their home countries.

Facing challenges

“We recognize that we have new Americans in this country and in this state that are coming from places with high levels of skills and education but face significant challenges,” Robert J. Rodriguez, New York’s Secretary of State, said in February, shortly after the expansion of the program.

Since its launch, the state has accepted 396 applicants into the program. On Long Island, 20 people have applied for the program since the start of the year, with nine current participants and six on waitlists while they work on their English proficiency and work permits, according to the State Department and CARECEN.

Recent figures on the number of immigrants who move to Long Island are hard to come by, said CARECEN's Castillo, but new data from the Immigration Research Initiative estimates there to be approximately 550,000 immigrants living in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Rodriquez said it's common to find new Americans who may have worked as doctors, lawyers, IT professionals or engineers in their home countries working in lower paid retail or service industry jobs to make ends meet.

On Long Island, 40% of immigrants make less than $48,000 annually, compared with 26% of U.S.-born workers, according to the Immigration Research Initiative.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced an expansion of the Professional Pathways program in February, earmarking $4.38 million in grant funding to be allotted over three years among seven participating immigrant service organizations including CARECEN, with offices in Hempstead and Brentwood.

The state funding is meant to help the community-based organizations  provide training and job placement aid to New York’s growing population of professionally-skilled immigrants.

Given the migrant crisis New York City and state officials are contending with, the Professional Pathways program presents an opportunity to help bring new immigrants and refugees into the job market, CARECEN's Castillo said.

“Once asylum seekers receive work authorization, they are eligible to participate in the Professional Pathways program,” she said.

“This program is increasingly critical as the number of new Americans in our region rise, because it will help them quickly gain employment in their fields and become active participants in Long Island’s economy."

With Alfonso Castillo and Arielle Dollinger

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