Growing Immigrant Population Faces Barriers of Language And Culture

For the past decade, Cambridge has been called a haven for immigrants fleeing political persecution or economic hardship in their home countries.

In 1985, because the city welcomed new-comers regardless of their immigration status at the time, it was labeled a "sanctuary city" by the state of Massachusetts.

But immigrants say that no amount of social services can make the transition to a new country easy. They speak of struggles to overcome barriers in language, employment and housing and of difficulties in adjusting to a new culture.

And though immigrants continue to arrive in ever-increasing numbers, cutbacks in state and federal funding have strained the resources of many social service organizations.

Jacqueline Joseph and her husband came to Cambridge three years ago, leaving three children behind in Haiti. With only a low-in-come job to pay off a growing stack of bills, she says she is just getting by.

"In Haiti, you can't sleep well because you're scared." she says. "There are many political problems, and too many tanks in the streets."

"I came here because I think it's better, and I left my family in Haiti," she adds. "But here they don't care about my family."

Joseph, who was a nurse in Haiti, says her inadequate language skills prevent he from getting a better job. She has been taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes but is frustrated by the state of her finances.

"What I don't like is that I don't have too much money," she says. "When you pay the bills, there's no money left for yourself."

The Josephs, who are legal temporary residents, will be eligible for green cards in two years. Only then will they be able to bring their children here.

Though the U.S. offers infinite possibilities to newcomers, it also offers infinite frustrations, and Joseph says she sometimes finds life here very difficult. "Here you can do everything," she says. "You can kill yourself also."

Ehrl LaFontant of the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee says that many Haitians, like the Josephs, came to the U.S. during the last few years because of political upheavals taking place in their nation's capitol.

LaFontant, an organizer for the Eviction Free Zone project, adds that the influx of refugees was also partly the result of immigrants already in Cambridge telling those at home about opportunities here. "Relatives assist refugees with information about whom to contact to settle here," he says.

Cambridge's other leading immigrant populations are Central and South Americans, especially El Salvadoreans and Brazilians, according to a study by the Cambridge Community Foundation. The study, published in 1987, estimates that 20,000 Cambridge residents are now Latino, Portuguese-speaking or Haitian.

A number of private and state-funded organizations in Cambridge provide language and information services for these non-English speaking immigrants. Among the groups doing such work are the Cambridge Organization for Portuguese Americans, Centro Presente, Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences (SCALE) and the Community Learning Center.

Most of the city's organizations provide services to clients without asking about their immigration status, although the state-funded Amnesty Grant requires that clients be U.S. temporary residents filing for permanent residence.

Lack of Resources

But he social service organization lack the financial and human resources to satisfy the immigrants' increasing demand for language and other education programs. Currently, there is a minimum one-year waiting list for ESL classes in the city.

"ESL and other services demand an enormous amount of funding and it's just not enormous enough," says Betty Stone, the lead ESL teacher for SCALE.

In fact, much of the state and federal funding allotted to Cambridge in 1987 to care for its increasing immigrant population has since been cut, diminishing the city's status as an officially designated "gateway city."

Both social service providers and immigrants agree that language remains the foremost barrier for newcomers to the U.S. Non-English speakers face difficulties in areas ranging from jobs to health care to daily transportation.

"If they are not able to access information, they are cut out of everything," says Stone. "[Language] is absolutely critical,"

Paulo C. Poletti, a young Brazilian man who has lived in Cambridge for six years, says the language barrier is not only an impediment to finding a job but a source of discrimination.

"As soon as they see that you can't speak, they have no respect. You're like a child that can't defend himself. They pay you less" he says.

Though Poletti has been taking ESL classes for two years, he says he has learned most of his English from other English speakers. However, he says life in the U.S. has required him to change more than just the language he speak.

"There's a big difference between America and Brazil; the way people live, talk, share," he says.

The Catholic Charitable Bureau, whose staff a interpreters speaks 67 different languages, assists immigrants with medical, legal and financial work. The staff also tries to help clients adjust to American culture and society.

"I see so much progress in families trying to learn about American culture," says Caterina Rocha, director of the Bureau's interpreter services. "It's a very slow process, but...They're trying more then ever to fit in."

The same families that are trying to fit in, however, are frequently reluctant to voice complaints about matters such as housing, fearing trouble with the authorities.

"In these people's minds, there is no difference between the police and the [Immigration and Naturalization Service]", says La-Fontant.

Thus immigrant tenants will often put up with rent hikes, deteriorating living conditions and exploitative landlords, he says.

"The landlords get them to sign things in English that they don't even know they're signing," says LaFontant. "[The landlords] practice blackmail."

Last week, 35 immigrants and other tenants from rent-controlled buildings at market and Windsor Streets staged a rally at City Hall over recent increases in their rent. Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves '72 granted the protesters an investigation into the increases.

"We came for an investigation and we got that," says Steve Meacham, an organizer of the Eviction Free Zone project, after the Council meeting. "We've already won victories and we hope to continue."