Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Immigrants: The People Who Do Our Work - Part 5 of 6

Even after dealing with (or avoiding) the immigration authorities, the struggles don’t end for immigrants when they land that cushy job mowing lawns in Bedford, NY. “For an immigrant, the worst part of your life is the insecurity and the anxiety,” according to Vanessa Merton, Supervising Attorney of the Immigration Justice Clinic at John Jay Legal Service at Pace University in White Plains, NY. “Because you’re afraid of the government, you’re vulnerable to victimization by employers, service providers, even the mechanic who fixes your car. What are you going to do? Go to the cops? These people are effectively living without the protection of the law.”

Then there are the struggles of daily living compounded by low education levels, a high cost of living, and, above all, the language barrier. Learning English is usually the first goal of most immigrants, despite the common misconception that they don’t want to learn the language of their adopted land, according to Martha Lopez, Director of the Westchester County Office for Hispanic Affairs in White Plains. “But if you go to the not-for-profit agencies that provide English as a second language programs, they are packed,” she points out, “All of the classes at BOCES, for example, are very well attended.” Neighbors Link in Mount Kisco provides ten ESL classes every week, morning and evening. At 11 am one day I was there, about fifty men and a handful of women were avidly drilling work-related English terms like “hammer” and “ten dollars per hour.”

It’s not easy to learn a second language, as just about anyone over the age of fifteen can attest. It’s even harder for immigrant adults. As Lopez explains, “If you come here with very low levels of education, or you are working seventy hours a week, learning a second language is very challenging.”

“Because the education level is often low,” Bracco adds, “they don’t know phonetics in their own language. Many times, they also haven’t learned how to learn. It sounds like a cliché, but many of them have been working in the fields since they were eight years old.”

According to the Census data, the median annual earnings of men from Mexico employed full time in Westchester County is $15,000. Women earn less--$10,000 on average. It would be tough to support a family in West Virginia on that income, much less in Westchester. To get by, many immigrants put up with less-than-ideal housing. A bed in a shared apartment can cost $400 a month, according to Bracco. That’s for a bed, not a room. Groceries aren’t any cheaper just because you speak Spanish, either. Nor are clothes, shoes, aspirin, or the washing machine at the laundromat.

Part 5 of 6 (originally published in a slightly different version inWestchester Magazine)

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

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