Monday, June 14, 2004

Barriers unlikely to stem immigration tide

Barriers unlikely to stem immigration tide

Monday, June 14, 2004 7:15 PM

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Barriers unlikely to stem immigration tide

By Tara Hayden
The Virginia Gazette

Published June 12, 2004

Hander Alvarez didn't know how he would financially support his wife and 2-year-old daughter when the family arrived here from Cuba five months ago.

No one in the Alvarez family had ever been to the United States or knew much English, but they were determined to leave Cuba for greater opportunities.

Their path to a better life has been filled with bumps, Alvarez said this week. Most Latinos who have immigrated to the United States would agree.

“When you first get here, those moments are hard,” Alvarez said. “You have to register for a Social Security number, which takes a while. Then you have to find a job, find good transportation to get to the job, get health care, find housing. It's tough.”

It's a daunting to-do list, especially if an immigrant has a shaky grasp of the language.

But Alvarez is quick to say most Latinos, himself included, feel moving to the states is worth the difficult transition. The migration, he anticipates, will continue.

The trick, he says, is smoothing out those bumps.

Integrating Hispanics in the work force is a large part of the problem.

Before securing a job here, all immigrants must first register for a Social Security number. The lag between signing up and receiving the card can be months.

Without that nine-digit number, immigrants are hindered from working, driving or receiving health care in the states.

Next is finding a job. Few companies advertise job openings in Spanish, and even fewer offer a Spanish-language application. Many employers refuse to deal with employees who speak limited English.

Some of the slack is picked up by job placement agencies like the Virginia Workforce Center at Williamsburg Crossing that have prepared for the state's growing Hispanic population.

Arthur Batten, manager of the center, said all of the job and unemployment applications there are available in both English and Spanish. It also has a subscription to Language Line, a statewide program where an interpreter can be contacted on a case-by-case basis for translation.

“Plus we keep an internal list of staff members who are fluent in other languages,” Batten added. “If all else fails, we can call them.”

While those services help reduce the language barrier, Alvarez still ran into problems looking for employment.

Back home in Cuba, he was a chemical engineer and made a good living. Here, he found his education and training didn't transfer.

He said employers seldom give credit to college degrees earned in Latin countries. He was passed over for several opportunities.

“I've had five years of college education and it doesn't mean anything,” Alvarez said. “My experience doesn't mean anything either.”

Alvarez was forced to look for much lower paying jobs outside of his field for his family to survive.

The situation was the same for his wife. She's had 13 years of accounting experience back in Cuba, but now works at a plastics manufacturing facility in Williamsburg.

Just last month, Hander Alvarez found a job too, recruiting temporary employees for Production Support Services, an employment agency in Newport News.

His English-speaking skills are still developing, but for most of his work day, he speaks Spanish.

“Hander interviews all of our Spanish-speaking applicants and places them in positions, either on the Peninsula or the Southside,” said Jennifer Christian, operations manager at Production Support Services.

Christian said Alvarez's job is part of a pilot program established last month to help Hispanic immigrants find work in the area.

Christian said Alvarez found the job after she listed the job placement agency with the Peninsula Tidewater Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in the hopes of generating more traffic to her office.

Alvarez is overjoyed about the position. It's a job he's lucked into and it's helped to ease the transition of being a Hispanic immigrant in a country where everything, including the language, is foreign to him.

Most immigrants aren't so fortunate.

“I know people who have had to wait months to get their Social Security number or people who can't understand enough English to get a job,” he said. “How can they support their families? It's a real problem.”

It's a problem Alvarez hopes will improve with time, but certainly hasn't gotten better through practice.

Virginia's Hispanic population has grown from 155,252 to 329,540 in just one decade. Hispanics account for 5% of the state's total population. Those numbers are expected to double by 2010.

“It seems like we as a state would have had time to make the necessary adjustments, but people haven't stepped up to the plate,” said Christian. “Our Hispanic population is growing so much that we need the tools to handle it. That means hiring Spanish-speaking or bilingual employees to help get the ball rolling. It takes a little dedication from the employer side, but it's something that has to be done nowadays.”

Christian added that Alvarez was the second Spanish-speaking employee she has hired in the last few years. She also said he won't be the last.

Since the pilot program began last month, Alvarez has helped place 50 Spanish-speaking immigrants into jobs.

“We don't know what we would do without Hander,” Christian said. “He's helped us so much. These people are coming here without much money, without jobs and they need our help. Now we can really help them.”

While Alvarez would like to see the transition of moving from a Latin country to the United States be a smoother one, he understands the move should be a cooperative effort.

For Hispanics, this includes learning the language.

Alvarez said many newly arrived Hispanic immigrants don't know much or any of English, but the desire to learn the language is present.

“If you are coming to this country, I believe you should learn to speak English,” he said. “I think a lot of Hispanic people believe that too.”

But finding the resources or the time proves to be a challenge. Alvarez said most English as a second language courses don't gel with work hours or family time.

Until more resources are available, he said providing for their families will take priority and assimilation will come later.

“We want to learn it, but we first have to find work. We first have to find a way to support our families.”


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