Correction to This Article
This article on companies with programs that help immigrant workers assimilate gave an incorrect title for Myles Gladstone of Miller & Long Concrete Construction. He is the company's vice president of human resources.

Companies Take Lead in Assimilation Efforts

By Pamela Constable and N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 9, 2008

Jose Trivelli, a graying engineer from Peru, spends his days fixing Internet connections at a Tysons Corner hotel and his evenings listening to a laptop computer program with cartoon characters and a chirpy voice that helps him pronounce such phrases as, "I'd like to open an account" and "Let me call my manager."

At 52, he admits to being slightly embarrassed by the simplistic instructional program, but he says his U.S.-born children, who speak perfect English, are so enthusiastic about his efforts that they help him with difficult words and dream of the day he will be promoted to manager.

Trivelli's employer, Marriott International, has a more ambitious motive for offering thousands of foreign-born housekeepers, cooks and maintenance workers its no-cost "Thirst for Knowledge" program, which simulates conversations in banks, hospitals, shops and schools as well as in hotel kitchens and lobbies.

Marriott and another Bethesda-based company, Miller & Long Concrete Construction, are among several dozen major U.S. corporations spearheading a campaign to turn the divisive national debate about immigration in a more positive direction.

"This is a mission for us," said Andy Chaves, a human resources manager for Marriott and a member of the White House Task Force on New Americans. "When our employees become proficient in English and assimilate into our society, it benefits the company, the community and the individual. Everyone gains."

Amid increasing public hostility to immigrants and intensifying efforts by local and federal authorities to crack down on illegal immigration, these business leaders hope to counter criticism that immigrants steal jobs and burden public services by highlighting the contributions they make to the U.S. economy and improving their ability to integrate.

The initiative is supported by a bill recently introduced in Congress. Sponsored by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and three representatives from California, Florida and Texas, it would provide $350 million for immigrant family literacy programs, individual tax credits for teachers and corporate tax breaks for firms that offer educational workplace programs like "Thirst for Knowledge."

In addition to support from private firms that employ thousands of immigrants from Latin America and elsewhere, the bill is backed by the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, which recently issued a report called "U.S. Business and Hispanic Integration: Expanding the Economic Contributions of Immigrants."

The report points out that Hispanics make up more than 14 percent of the U.S. workforce, own more than 2 million businesses and have a collective purchasing power of more than $800 billion a year. It says foreign-born workers have much to offer but need more help to master English and become more invested in American society.

It concedes that many Hispanic immigrants arrive with limited educations and that the immigration wave of the past two decades has slightly depressed wages among unskilled American workers. It also argues that immigrants "complement" the overall labor force as more native-born Americans earn degrees and seek higher-level jobs.

The report also asserts that if immigrants are given more opportunities to learn, earn and engage, they will repay the investment as better workers, parents, consumers and participants in public life. Although not endorsing illegal immigration, the report accepts it as a fact of life that needs to be addressed through legislative reforms.

The report lists corporations that have offered their large immigrant workforces a variety of skill-building programs. These include scholarships at Wal-Mart, English classes at United Parcel Service, financial literacy programs at Western Union and bilingual skills development at Northrop Grumman shipbuilders.

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