‘Enfranchising’ immigrants

Before launching into this month’s column, I want to take a minute to thank the hundreds of Pilot readers who responded to last month’s column and envelope on Catholic Charities’ need to restock our shelves. We are deeply moved, and even more deeply appreciative. We will put your generosity to good work.

It has become our tradition at each quarterly meeting of our Board of Trustees to have a staff member present on one of our programs. This quarter, Robert Hibbard presented on our English for Employment and English for Speakers of Other Languages programs at El Centro del Cardenal in the South End. Between the two programs, we serve about 145 people per year as they try to improve their English language skills and move themselves and their families toward economic self-sufficiency.

Most people know Catholic Charities for our basic needs and emergency response services. The work we do to help people achieve long-term economic self-sufficiency is just as important. That’s one of the things I love about being at Charities -- we give a fish and teach how to fish.

Each year, 15 women participate in our English for Employment program at El Centro. While the program helps them improve their English skills so that they can improve their job prospects, it does a lot more than that. Their instructor works as a case worker. We help them navigate the requirements to receive state aid through various programs. We help them prepare for citizenship, and learn how to communicate with the teachers at the schools their children attend. Imagine the tremendous pride of a student who has just gone to the doctor alone, without the invasion of privacy of having to bring a child or a friend to help translate.

We do all this for about $4,000 per person per year. The economic case alone for this kind of work is strong. The Department of Transitional Assistance maximum monthly cash benefit for a family of four is $731. That adds up to roughly $8,700 per year. The DTA cash assistance is just one component of what a family receiving support from the state might receive. If it costs $4,000 per year to help someone become economically self-sufficient through this program, and being economically self-sufficient saves at a minimum $8,700.

Further, over the last several years, Massachusetts would have averaged negative population growth if it weren’t for the population growth comprised of immigrants. The people we are educating are the workforce of the future. Right now, about 20,000 people sit on wait lists in the Commonwealth for a seat in an English as a Second Language program. That’s 20,000 who can strengthen our workforce but can’t get from point A to point B because of a language barrier.

The importance of this work extends much further than just the economic impact, though. At the end of participating in an El Centro program, if we’ve done our jobs right, the woman is on her way to what I would call being truly enfranchised. She is prepared for a better job. She’s advanced in her quest for citizenship, or may have achieved it, and is participating in the Commonwealth’s economic and political systems. She engages more effectively with her children, and with the school system with which she is a partner in educating them. She is a contributing member of the Massachusetts workforce. And, she is an example to her kids and her community.

What is that worth? At the least, it’s worth doing more of it.

Tiziana C. Dearing is president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.