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Herndon Reaches Out to Immigrants

Twenty-five immigrants are sworn in as citizens at the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce. The group is planning English classes for immigrant workers.
Twenty-five immigrants are sworn in as citizens at the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce. The group is planning English classes for immigrant workers. (By Susan Rook -- All Event Photo)

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By S. Mitra Kalita
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 16, 2005

Lately, the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce has been translating all its materials into Spanish.

This fall, the chamber plans to offer English classes so that won't have to be the case forever.

"The more quickly we can integrate the new Americans into a culture, the less are the tensions in a community," said Eileen Curtis, president and chief executive of the business group that serves the area from Herndon to Chantilly. "The single most critical need in the assimilation process is the skill of English."

And so as construction and landscaping seasons wane, the chamber hopes to lure workers in those fields to classes created specifically for them.

The instruction, for example, would teach them the terms needed to perform jobs in those fields, along with basic communication and grammar. In coming months, the chamber also wants to offer English courses for the health care and hospitality industries.

This week, 32 volunteers complete their training to teach English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL. The chamber sponsored the training with a grant from the Community Foundation and will now prepare the volunteers to work with the targeted population.

The classes arose from a multicultural summit held two years ago to explore relations among Herndon's ethnic communities. A town of four square miles at the edge of western Fairfax County, Herndon has the highest proportion of foreign-born residents of any municipality in the Washington area -- 37 percent of its 22,000 residents, according to census data.

At the summit, all sides pointed to English as a central concern -- immigrants because they know they need the language to do well, and existing residents because they want to communicate with those newer members of the workforce.

"What we're trying to do is highlight the fact that there are elements of the immigrant community here who want to be part of the American experience," said chamber vice president of marketing Raul Danny Vargas, who also runs a sales and marketing consultancy.

Last month, the chamber held a reception for Hispanic businesses, intentionally merging the networking event with a swearing-in ceremony for 25 immigrants from around the world. Besides citizenship, the immigrants were given a pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution, apple pies and coupons for hot dogs.

Relations between longtime Herndon residents and newcomers have been tense at times. Much of the controversy has centered on a day-laborer pickup site, but town officials also have fielded complaints about offering services to undocumented immigrants and the zoning violations of overcrowded homes.

"This old dairy farming town has suddenly changed completely, and it needed some assistance in trying to assimilate," said Curtis. "We want to let businesses in the Latino community know they are welcome here."

The chamber recently started a partnership with the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to allow members of each to enjoy reciprocity with the other for three months, then join at a discount. "We are very focused on the common sense," said Vargas, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. "There's nothing that makes more business sense than to open up markets that haven't been addressed in the past."


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