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Border not only barrier Multitude of obstacles can make it difficult for immigrants to get ahead

By NANCY FLORES
The Enterprise

Jennifer Reynolds/The Enterprise
Caleb Avila, 55, listens to a caller during his talk show at a radio station in
Port Arthur. Avila, who is from Honduras, came to the U.S. without knowing
how to drive or speak English.

PORT ARTHUR -- When Honduran native Caleb Avila, 41, arrived in the United States about 20 years ago, he didn't realize his journey had only begun. Without a grasp of the English language and without even knowing how to drive, Avila plunged into an unfamiliar world.

"Sometimes you get here and you think, 'I've made it ... I'm here,' but that's just the start," said Avila, now a Port Neches resident. Avila is among thousands of Southeast Texas immigrants who have hurdled societal barriers that didn't stop when they obtained their legal status.

In some cases, those barriers only loomed higher. Lack of strong English language skills, secondary education and knowledge of the American system rank high among the obstacles some Mexican and Central American immigrants must overcome to compete for higher-paying jobs, according to the Center for Immigration Research in Houston.

Many times for immigrants, there's no other option but to take a low-paying job, said Mexican native and now U.S. citizen Nancy Blanco of Port Arthur. "Most U.S.-born citizens can choose to quit if they find a better-paying job, but without speaking English or having documents, you can't risk losing the job you already have." For Avila, founder of El Perico Spanish-language newspaper in Port Arthur, language was one of many barriers he encountered. He used to hate American television when he first arrived in California as an immigrant in his 20s.

"I'd get frustrated, even mad sometimes, because I couldn't understand what was being talked about," Avila said. Avila said he knew he had to learn the language, but he didn't have the time to attend English classes. Avila needed to work and send money back to his mother and sisters in Honduras. "You just can't rest," Avila said. "You can't afford to." He began paying close attention around him, picking up enough phrases to get by on his own. He landed a manual labor job with a Nederland foundry company and worked there for more than 10 years.

"Mastery of the language can be the difference between finding a low-paying job and one that pays above the poverty level," said Barbara Beard, director for Beaumont's Literacy Depot. "You may be able to bus tables at a restaurant without speaking English, but you can't be a waiter and access those tips." Shortly after the launch of Literacy Depot in 1989, an English as a Second Language program was added. Now, the program serves about 75 students a month; of those, about 50 to 60 are immigrants studying ESL.

But a complete, functional grasp of the language might take years for some, according to Nestor Rodriguez, co-director of Houston's Center for Immigration Research. "Sometimes language proficiency takes time from one generation to the next ... slowing down the process of obtaining higher-paying jobs," Rodriguez said. Blanco -- who migrated to the U.S. with her parents as a baby -- noticed Mexican immigrants moving out of the Port Arthur area in the late 1990s after some refineries stopped administering a Spanish-language version of a safety test employees must pass.

"Some spoke English, but not enough to pass the test. Many just couldn't do it," Blanco, 28, said. Blanco attended American schools, worked as a migrant farmworker and received her high school degree.

Now an office coordinator for CCMB Medical Services in Port Arthur, she said her language skills have given her an advantage compared to other immigrants. Avila said when he presented his Honduran high school diploma, it didn't mean much to some American employers. "So many times I started from scratch," Avila said. Sometimes educated immigrant workers face the challenge of employers viewing them as "not qualified to handle the situation," said Tony Zavaleta, director of External Affairs at the University of Texas in Brownsville. Someone might be certified in his or her country as a nurse, but after they arrive here, they can find employment only as a nurse's aide, Zavaleta said. "That's a huge difference if you could be making about $40,000 a year compared to $7 per hour," Zavaleta said.

"We should always have certified and qualified employees, but it's just an extra struggle for immigrants who have already gone through the certification process elsewhere." According to a survey conducted by the Hispanic Literacy Taskforce in 2001, 59 percent of Houston-area first-generation immigrants did not have a high school diploma, while 6 percent had completed four years of college. In many regions of Mexico and Central America, education is offered up to the sixth grade, Rodriguez said. "If a person wants an education beyond that in their native countries, often they must pay," Rodriguez said.

Obtaining legal status doesn't guarantee success either, Rodriguez said. "It makes you a player but doesn't show you how to play the game," he said. Avila worked with the foundry company for about a decade because he still had a lot to learn about how to network, where to find information and how to take advantage of available resources. "When you don't know the system, you can't take any risks," he said.

Avila had two children to support and was not about to leave a secure job, even if he knew better opportunities existed. "It's one thing to begin to understand the system, but it's another thing when you have to learn to use it," Avila said. Then one day, Avila broke his finger and couldn't work manual labor jobs. He said he had to take a chance when someone told him his strong communication skills would make him a good radio personality and journalist.

Avila said that's when he learned about resources available to him, like career mentors who could help him maneuver through an unfamiliar system. In addition to founding El Perico newspaper, Avila now hosts a Spanish language radio talk show in Port Arthur. "I feel sad sometimes about the resentment some may have toward immigrants," Avila said.

"We're workers, we're students, and we just want to work and learn."

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