Iraqi Military Interpreter Yearns to Serve U.S. Through Teaching

Safwat Al Baali is grateful for his housekeeping job at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, on the glittery Las Vegas strip. After scraping by for seven months upon receiving political asylum, he is thrilled to be averaging $17.25 an hour with tips. “My life is so good now,” he says. Al Baali had been blacklisted by militia groups in Iraq for working as an interpreter for U.S. troops, from 2003 to 2004. “I was kicked out of Iraq” — and later Dubai, where his family fled — “I had no rights.” The salary allows Al Baali to pay for a house and a car, and to support his wife and two young daughters.

Al Baali’s dream, however, is to return to his career as a computer science teacher at an elementary school. But he will need to take 12 university classes to qualify for his teaching credentials in Nevada, a costly and time-consuming process that would make it difficult to provide for his family. “I’ve already taken five years of college in Iraq,” says Al Baali, who also served as head of the computer science department at an elementary school in Dubai.

Al Baali advocates for immigration reform that would help immigrant professionals qualify for American professional licenses, an effort that would benefit American employers and the U.S. economy, as well. Nevada, for instance, is in the midst of a teacher shortage. “I’m not the only one dealing with the this,” he says. “I see lots of immigrants who used to be doctors and professors, and now they work in restaurants. It’s a waste of their talent and education.”

I love this country and want to contribute in the best way I know how

This untapped talent also represents lost tax revenue for local, state, and federal governments. If college-educated immigrants worked in the professions for which they have trained, they would earn an additional $39.4 billion per year and, as a result, pay an additional $10.2 billion in annual taxes. The cost to the nation of this so-called brain waste has been on the rise as highly skilled immigrants comprise an ever greater share of new arrivals. Almost half of immigrant adults entering the United States between 2011 and 2015 held at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with only 27 percent who did in 1990.

Yet nearly 2 million immigrants with college degrees are relegated to low-skilled jobs, meaning Al Baali is hardly alone. In Las Vegas, where more than 19 percent of the foreign-born hold either bachelor’s or graduate’s degrees, immigrants comprise 39.2 percent of the workforce in the tourism, hospitality, and recreation industries — typically low-skilled positions like the one Al Baali holds.

Al Baali plans to begin his U.S. college coursework next year, although he expects it will be a struggle to balance with a full-time job. Still, he says he cannot ignore his passion for teaching. “I love this country and want to contribute in the best way I know how,” he says. “I want to be a role model for other students.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…