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Immigrants especially hard hit by down economy

By Sarah M. Barrett
Posted: 5/15/2009

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Times are tough for everyone but they are turning out to be especially hard on new immigrants working to stake their claim to a piece of the American dream. Increasingly, they are turning to the Church for help.

Evenson Guerrier is one of the 1.45 million immigrants who came to the U.S. in 2008, was imbued with the same dream of freedom, equality and opportunity that inspired millions before him.

In search of a refuge from the violence back home, and with a confident hope in the promise of the American dream, Guerrier emigrated from Haiti in September, joining his wife and 10-year-old daughter at their apartment in Mattapan.

After nine months of searching, Guerrier is still unemployed. His wife is supporting the family with her house keeping job at a hotel, while he takes English classes, attends job fairs and passes out resumes. Despite having extensive work experience as a Christian pastor back in Haiti, Guerrier said he would be so happy to find a job, -- any job -- “mechanic, cook, plumber, anything,” he said.

“Everywhere, I run into barriers,” he said.

Without a full command of the English language or prior experience working in the United States, he has found it virtually impossible to find a job.

“Everywhere I go they say I need work experience here, but I can’t get experience until I get job,” he said.

“Now I am fighting to overcome,” he said.

Amidst a global economic crisis and soaring unemployment rates, the American dream has been deferred for many new immigrants, said Marjean Perhot, director of Refugee and Immigration Services at Catholic Charities of Greater Boston.

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a group which favors limiting immigration, released a report April 30, tracking the rate and distribution of unemployment in the U.S. among native and immigrant workers since the onset of the recession in late 2007. The census data used in the report found a marked deviation from the recent past, showing the country’s immigrant populations as enduring the brunt of the recession and losing jobs to the economic crisis at a significantly higher rate than native-born Americans.

According to the report, immigrant workers account for more than half of the 172,000 jobs lost in Massachusetts since the recession began though they comprise a mere 17 percent of the workforce. Massachusetts was listed among the states with the largest decline in immigrant employment.

This radically disproportionate ratio reflects, among other things, the volatile nature of the service industry jobs held by many immigrants--an industry hit hard by the recession--and the inability of many immigrants to compete with American-born individuals who speak English fluently and have at least a high school education, said Perhot.

More-so than naturalized citizens, who have the additional safety-net of government protection--including welfare, public housing and unemployment cash-benefits--immigrant job-loss often means choosing between buying food and paying rent, applying for family reunification or for green cards.

Without a government-backed financial support system, many unemployed immigrants turn to the church or an agency like Catholic Charities for financial, legal and basic needs support--including English classes, food supplies, job hunting help and rent money.

According to Perhot, Catholic Charities continues to see an increased need and consistent influx of new faces in need of support--primarily with utility bills, food and housing assistance. Despite serving around 17,000 immigrants and refugees each year, Perhot said they are forced to turn away just as many.

“We are making tough decisions about programs, but ultimately one of the key things that Catholic Charities does here is serve the poor and the working poor and that is where we are doubling our efforts,” she said.

Beth Chambers, the director of community services for Catholic Charities, said she has seen the biggest increase in need at the Haitian Multi-Service Center (HMSC) food panty, which is run by the organization.

“We used to just be open during the day, but now we’re open three evenings a week so that people can come to the food pantry after work for dinner, too,” said Chambers. “For me that is the toughest to swallow, because now, instead of just walking in, people are driving up, parking their cars and coming in uniforms and work clothes.”