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Immigrants lives blighted by poverty in America

By Alan Elsner, National Correspondent
Reuters, March 5, 2002

BAILEY'S CROSSROADS, Va. (Reuters) -- They come to America from Pakistan, El Salvador, Somalia, Iraq and dozens of other countries but they have one thing in common -- poverty.

In Culmore, Virginia, a small housing development nestled between upscale shopping malls and car dealerships near Washington, D.C., immigrants speaking 70 different languages struggle for a piece of the American dream. For many it remains stubbornly out of reach.

"We do a lot of emergency aid for people who need help making their rent and we've set aside thousands of dollars for that alone each year. People live from paycheck to paycheck. If they get the flu and miss three days at work, they're in trouble," said Father Tuck Grinnell of St. Anthony's Catholic Church which stands just outside the neighborhood.

Immigration has transformed Virginia's Fairfax County in the past 20 years from a predominantly white area to one with substantial black, Asian and Hispanic communities. It remains one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the United States.

But a poll commissioned by the county in 2000 of 922 immigrants from more than 40 countries of origin revealed the depths of poverty in places like Culmore.

About 19 percent in the survey reported having difficulty paying the rent in the previous six months and the same number had had problems paying for medical care; 13 percent said they had experienced difficulty paying their gas, water or electric bills; 11 percent said it had been hard for them to buy necessary food.

Nearly 16 percent said their children worked to help support the family. But a third were also sending money to relatives in their home country on a regular basis.

In Culmore, families often crowd into a single room. Waqas Amin, 14, who came with his family from Pakistan four years ago, shares a small bedroom with four sisters. His parents sleep in the living room.

"The toughest thing has been learning English. I came here knowing only Urdu. But now I make good grades. In five years, I plan to be in the U.S. Air Force," he said.

Edgarto Chavez, 15, lives with his father and step-mother, three brothers and one half-sister. His mother is still in Nicaragua. Another sister, who had a baby before she turned 16, lives with her boyfriend a couple of miles away even though she is still a minor.

Skilled workers take unskilled jobs

Even qualified, educated immigrants are often forced to take manual jobs, sometimes because they lack proper documents and are living in the United States illegally.

Susanna Goenaga, who came from Argentina last year, is a nurse, her husband a pharmacist. They arrived in the United States on three-month tourist visas and stayed, hoping to build a better life for their two young daughters. But without a work permit, their employment prospects are limited. Right now, her husband works as a carpenter without health insurance and she is unemployed and trying to learn English.

"For the better jobs, you need English," she said. But you also need papers.

The county government, as well as churches, mosques and voluntary agencies all make tremendous efforts to help meet the health and welfare needs of newcomers and keep their children in school.

But the odds can still be daunting. At the Bryant Alternative High School, where immigrant children and adults can learn English and work for a high school diploma, the drop-out rate after 3 months is almost 50 percent.

"We have students here who were highly educated in their countries but also students who have never sat behind a desk or held a pen before in their lives," said principal Jan McKee.

Richard Weissbourd, a lecturer at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, recently cited disturbing data suggesting that the longer immigrant children lived in the United States, the worse on average was their health, their attitude and their school performance.

"First-generation children today are far more likely than their counterparts of 50 years ago to be scraping for crumbs of time from a single parent who not only works but is frayed from ricocheting among two or three jobs," he wrote recently in the New Republic.

He cited one study in which 85 percent of immigrant children had been separated from at least one parent for extended periods; 49 percent had been separated from both.

Father Grinnell saw the same phenomenon. "There are mothers here who send back money to support their families in Guatemala but never see them. Families are broken apart," he said.

Rev. Ileana Rosas, who runs a Methodist ministry in Culmore, described how men come to the United States planning to bring their wives and children later but often find it hard to bear the loneliness.

"Sometimes they establish second families here. It's a human need. But sometimes they are not honest and it causes great pain when it is discovered," she said.

Morene, 18, had a baby girl a year ago and is raising her alone. "After I got pregnant, I found out my boyfriend was married with two children. Now he's back with his wife and she doesn't want him to see my baby," said Morene, who asked that her last name not be used.