Group hopes to break barriers for Latino community

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

The Latino Collaboration Table continued its efforts to break down barriers and bridge the gap between the Anglo and Latino communities Wednesday night.

The group — which is made up of concerned community members and formed in 2014 — hosted a gathering at Jasper Engines and Transmissions to present the results of several community discussion sessions held last year for employers, educators and members of the Latino community. Last year’s discussions asked the question, “How might we marry the needs of Dubois County employers with the needs of the Latino population?” From those discussions, the Latino Collaboration Table identified three areas of focus: language and culture; education; and immigration.

Latino Collaboration Table leadership team members Donna Oeding with the Dubois County Health Department and Evelyn Rivas with German American Bancorp, and the Association of Latin Americans in Southern Indiana presented on language and culture.

The language barrier came up in all of last year’s discussion groups, Rivas said, but the group found that the barrier was a generational issue with first generation immigrants struggling the most. By the second generation, Rivas said, there are bilingual people in immigrant families, usually the children of the first generation immigrants, who can translate for their families.

For Latino children, their English skills put them in more of an adult position within their families as they translate for their parents in adult situations such as with school officials or health care professionals. Oeding, who is the director of the Dubois County Health Department, shared that she often has Latino families come in where children as young as 8 years old are translating for their parents.

On the adults’ end, Rivas said, it’s not that they don’t want to learn English, but rather that classes don’t line up with their work schedules and family obligations. In a lot of cases, Rivas said, the adults know some English, but hesitate to use it in formal situations out of fear of being judged or misunderstood.

The discussions also showed a perception among Anglos that Latinos don’t value education or work promotions as much as Anglos. Rivas said that’s not the case. Rather, the issue is that Latino parents don’t understand the U.S. education system, having not grown up with it, and the language barrier can make it difficult to learn about it. For promotions, Latino workers would like to be promoted, but are often hesitant because of Latino cultural norms. Latino families, for example, value keeping the family together above personal success. That can lead younger Latinos to turn down promotions that could elevate their status above someone else in their family or necessitate a move.

Oeding and Rivas encouraged people on both sides of the cultural divide to reach out to each other and try to understand each other’s lives and cultures.

“I think so many of us still use the ‘us and them’ language instead of it’s all us,” Oeding said.

Huntingburg Mayor Denny Spinner and Jasper Engines Human Resources Director Barb Hopf presented on immigration issues.

Last year’s discussion groups found that the current immigration climate created fear and stress in all immigrants, whether documented or not. The discussions also revealed that the Anglo community does not understand the immigration process, which includes a long, expensive path to citizenship, but only for some immigrants.

Hopf shared the story of one Jasper Engines employee who was brought to the U.S. at 9 years old. Her parents tried to get her documents, paying each time they applied, but their applications never made it to fruition. Eventually, the employee’s parents stopped applying because they couldn’t afford to keep doing so. As an adult, the woman tried to gain legal residency herself. After years of legal battles, she was successful, but the cost was high.

“In one year, she spent $14,000,” Hopf said.

Hopf talked about another employee who had to be let go three times because his work authorization didn’t come in time, despite him applying months in advance for a renewal and paying the necessary fees, having his employer send letters to immigration and officials, and consistently calling to check the status of his renewal. Each time, his work authorization arrived a few weeks after the previous authorization expired and Jasper Engines had already let him go. Still, Hopf said, the company held his position because he was a good worker and had done everything right on his end of the renewal process.

Hopf also pointed out that Dubois County is at full employment, yet most companies still have several openings. She estimated that across the county, there are at least 500 open positions.

“We need (immigrants) to work to fill these openings in our county,” Hopf said.

Spinner said that even though immigration is a federal issue, people at the local level can help by calling their representatives and educating themselves on the process.

“We need to learn more,” Spinner said. “I need to learn more.”

Southridge High School Principal Chad Sickbert and Vincennes University Jasper Campus Dean Christian Blome presented on education. Sickbert said that local schools are seeing growth in the Latino populations in their corporations. At Southwest Dubois schools, for example, Sickbert said 26 percent of the student population is Latino, with most Latino students enrolled in elementary school. A major challenge for students, Sickbert said, is the fear that someone in their family could be deported. Students are scared whether they’re documented or not, he said.

“They fear that they could go home one evening and find that a family member is being deported,” Sickbert said.

For older students, Sickbert said, their jobs serve as a source of income for their families, which can lead students to prioritize their jobs over their education. And when it comes time for college, students often have to navigate the application process on their own because their parents don’t understand the system.

Blome pointed out that often college is too expensive. Undocumented immigrants or immigrants without permanent residency, which takes years to acquire once immigrants arrive on a visa, must pay out-of-state tuition in Indiana. At Vincennes University, Blome said, out-of-state tuition is double the in-state rates. Immigrants without permanent residency also don’t qualify for any financial aid, government student loans or publicly-funded scholarships.

Despite the extra challenges immigrant students face, Blome and Sickbert said that they heard from both immigrant parents and students that they want to succeed in school and attend some form of higher education.

“Our students have a lot of aspirations and hopes for the future,” Sickbert said. “I’m proud of them.”

The next Latino Collaboration Table event has not been scheduled, but the group plans to continue to work to bridge gaps between the Anglo and Latino communities and provide resources to immigrants and employers.




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com