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.
Some companies that employ immigrants have been reluctant to associate themselves with the effort, however, citing fears of public criticism and government scrutiny amid increasingly aggressive federal efforts to track down illegal immigrants and punish their employers.
"Businesses feel cowed by the rhetoric," said Christopher Sabatini, a policy director at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. "There is a fear of being labeled as aiding and abetting undocumented immigrants." He said some companies have curtailed programs aimed at helping immigrant workers because of community disapproval.
One company that has taken a strong public stance in favor of helping immigrant workers is Miller & Long. Myles Gladstone, the firm's personnel director, said that it once hired mostly African Americans but that since the early 1990s, fewer U.S.-born workers have applied, and they have been largely replaced by immigrants. Today, the firm employs more than 2,000 Hispanics, mostly foreign-born.
Gladstone said the firm started offering safety instruction in Spanish but gradually expanded into "broader life skills" for workers and their families. Today, it offers 65 free classes, including English, Spanish literacy, job safety, lifesaving, financial skills and health promotion. He said there are plans to expand the program to help immigrants keep their children out of trouble, with seminars on gangs and substance abuse.
He noted that not all immigrants are able to learn English and that of about 500 who have taken the company's language classes, "not a lot" have become truly bilingual. He said that if construction workers are trained well and understand safety, "they don't really need to have fluency in English," although without it they cannot become foremen or crane operators.
Antonia Diaz, 42, has advanced steadily at Miller & Long since she emigrated from Honduras six years ago. She began as a laborer, earning $10 per hour and speaking almost no English. Now, after taking corporate English classes for several years, she is a construction site safety worker and earns $18.50 an hour.
"If I had known I would be talking like this, I wouldn't believe it," Diaz said yesterday in passable English as she built wooden safety barricades around a construction site in Silver Spring. Although she converses with her mostly Hispanic crew in Spanish, she said learning English had other merits. "It helps me in my personal life," she said. She said she loves her job and plans to stay with Miller & Long but added: "If I know English and I get laid off, I can find other work. I am prepared for anything."
At Marriott, where some hotels have employees from as many as 25 countries, Chairman Bill Marriott calls immigrants the backbone of his business and frequently talks about the virtues of diversity and assimilation in his personal blog.
"We would hire a native-born person any day, but in most cases they don't want to do the lower-level labor we need in our business," he said in a telephone interview this week. "Probably the most important thing we can do is offer our employees the opportunity to learn English and grow and become part of our society."
At the Tysons Corner Marriott, much behind-the-scenes work is conducted in Spanish among immigrant employees. Most who have taken the "Thirst for Knowledge" class do not speak perfect English; Trivelli still confuses "chopping" with "shopping" and tends to drop his consonants. But he and the others said they have gained something else: a stronger sense of confidence and belonging in their adopted environment.
"Until now, I was always working too hard to study," said Trivelli, who was practicing vocabulary on his laptop in a workroom filled with tools and wires. "Now my kids are so happy I am learning. They help me with my pronunciation, and they tell me if I learn enough English, I can replace my boss one day."