Immigrants come to this country with a strong desire to experience American life at its fullest, yet they often experience life at the margins instead. What problems do they face and how can they be fixed?
Problem # 1: Lack of English Proficiency.
It’s a key factor in the ability of new Americans to get a job and climb the occupational ladder. A twenty-two year old Russian man in Chicago, employed as a contractor said, “It’s specific words I sometimes don’t know and it’s—the job that I have is very hard, because you have to speak with customers a lot and discuss a lot of things. So there are a lot of specific terms. That’s why it’s hard.” It’s not only grammar knowledge that’s an obstacle, but foreign accents that affect the ability to get a job and to work with employers, fellow employees and customers.
The Fix: Offer classes in English As A Second Language.
As Building Assistant at Boght Hills Elementary School in Colonie, NY (near the state capitol of Albany), Rita Pickett found that many parents of immigrant children lacked the English skills to negotiate daily life. With a large proportion from Pakistan immigrants, Urdu is the second most spoken language in the community. So she started an English tutoring program using volunteers from her church, Calvary United Methodist in Latham. Tutors now help these parents get citizenship, driver’s licenses, apartments, and jobs.
Problem # 2: Lack of transportation.
Many small cities have growing immigrant populations with inadequate mass transit options. Yet at the same time it’s difficult for someone who has just arrived in this country to immediately get a driver’s license or buy a car. Why? Often language is a key issue.
The Fix: Offer A Ride, Or Advocate for Mass Transit
Volunteer to help people to doctor’s appointments, ESL classes, and grocery shopping or develop a car pool service who are “temporarily disabled” by lack of transportation. Or build a coalition of persons who care about public transportation, and advocate for it with your local government officials.
Problem # 3: Wage Theft.
The lack of English skills leaves many immigrant workers vulnerable to wage theft. Even those with high education and professional training may find it necessary to work in low wage jobs such as day labor (for example, a temporary office or construction worker.) According to Interfaith Worker Justice, the most common forms of wage theft are:
- Non-payment of overtime
- Not giving workers their last paycheck after a worker leaves a job
- Not paying for all the hours worked
- Not paying minimum wage
- Not paying a worker at all
The Fix: Educate yourself & advocate change.
Read up on FAQs about wage theft from Interfaith Worker Justice. Then ask your members of Congress to support the Pay Stub Disclosure Act introduced by Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Senator Al Franken (D-MN), which requires employers to be more transparent about what they are required to pay according to law.
 Fred Kniss and Paul Numrich, Sacred Assemblies and Civic Engagement: How Religion Matters For America’s Newest Immigrants (Piscatawy, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2007), 76.
Photo: Steve, 6.1. 2014. Flickr Creative Commons.