Clinging to Dreams of a Better Life
Despite Fragile Finances, Immigrants Report Greater Satisfaction With Their Jobs

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

The handtruck is stacked several feet high with the goodies of 21st-century global innovation and commerce: LG cellphones and Canon digital cameras, GameBoys and GameCubes. Abderrafie el-Alami can't afford most of these items, but he handles the packages with care. Calculator, $20.99, top row. MP3 player headset, $24.99, third rung from the bottom.

Later, he'll leave the job at Circuit City for his four-story walkup in Alexandria, a two-bedroom flat he shares with two other men from Morocco, his homeland. It is a neat, spare existence, as well as crowded: His bed sits on the floor next to a plastic nightstand.

Alami, who is not married, has a masters' degree in public administration and will be 40 this year. Back home, his father is a respected former imam. But a job is a job, and Alami is not too good for the services industry, he thinks. There is no question that even after seven years of low-wage work and cramped living in Northern Virginia, and worrying about making ends meet, this $11.25 an hour job will lead him to what he has come to understand is achieving the "American dream."

"You work hard, you get ahead and you don't stop," he said. "There is a job to be done, and it is a good job because it pays. It doesn't really matter what my education was at home. The opportunity is here. And you take it, and you do it and it will work out."

Alami's complex but unwavering view that this better life is not far from his reach reflects results from a new survey conducted by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University that examined the experiences of low-wage workers in the United States. Foreign-born, low-wage workers in the poll said that the economic security they left homes and families to seek in the United States is becoming harder to attain. But their faith in that dream is still strong, as they tend to be more optimistic about the future and more satisfied with their jobs and wages than native-born workers.

Nearly eight in 10 believe that their children will lead even better financial lives, far above the proportion among the native-born that thinks so.

"With many immigrants, there is this sense that they made this hard choice to leave their homelands and they are going to make it under any cost," said Robert Trumble, a professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University and director of the Virginia Labor Studies Center. "I think there's a tendency to see the positive, even under the most dire circumstances, because so much is at stake: They've left family, family members are counting on them and they want to make this work.

Follow-up interviews with nearly a dozen legal immigrants age 20 to 40 in the Washington region echo this optimism in the face of fragile financial circumstances.

The poll, conducted in June and July, focused on adults aged 18 to 64 who made no more than $27,000 last year while working at least 30 hours a week. Foreign-born workers make up 16 percent of this group, which together accounts for nearly one-quarter of all U.S. adults.

Adopting a Dream

These positive attitudes about life in what Alami calls "my New World" have long been the psychic backbone that has supported the lives of tens of millions of foreign-born laborers that for generations have made the United States a country of immigrants.

In part, this stems from the poverty and lack of opportunities many immigrants left in their homelands. Nearly seven in 10 of those surveyed in the Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll said they were better off than their parents were at this stage in their lives. Despite Alami's education, he was unable to find work in Morocco's major cities and saw emigrating nearly 4,000 miles as the only chance to help support his entire family.

Recently, however, these immigrants have been plagued by stagnating wages and rising inflation. Only about a third of foreign-born workers in the poll said their wages had gone up in past years; a majority said their incomes were flat or had declined. And they were more apt to report having a harder time paying for life's basics -- housing, food, health care and energy costs -- than the U.S.-born.

But generally this has not soured the overwhelming belief that to "make it" in their adopted land, all anyone needs is a determined belief that hard work can carry out the dream. About three-quarters of foreign-born workers in the poll believe this.

Sonia Castillo-Hercules, 21, felt the weight of the downturn in the U.S. economy earlier this year. She and her fiance, Noel Portillo, 27, owned a three-bedroom condominium in Alexandria for two years before the $3,000 mortgage payments became too much for them. Increasing gas, energy and food costs tightened their budget, and for months, she said, we had "no money for anything . . . clothes for us, for our baby. Nothing."

Now they have put the property up for a short sale -- they won't make any money off the exchange -- and have moved into a smaller two-bedroom apartment just north of Fort Belvoir for $1,541 a month. A legal immigrant from El Salvador, Castillo-Hercules works at Inova Fairfax Hospital in the medical records department for $13.25 an hour. These struggles over the past year haven't softened her resolve.

"I saw how my father lived . . . it was hard there in El Salvador. I saw how he tried to make ends meet, to support us," she said, cutting plantains in her kitchen and tossing them into a deep fryer. "When I saw that, how he lived, and I see this, the opportunities that I have, we have, I say, there's nothing that I can't do if I just keep at it."

Castillo-Hercules, who received her graduate equivalency diploma last year, said that even as prices rise for many items, she is satisfied with her hourly pay, a common sentiment among many of this low-wage group. Nearly 65 percent of immigrant workers were satisfied with their salary, compared with half of U.S. born low-wage earners. "There's always a chance to make more," she said, "you just have to wait."

Spells of Insecurity

Despite this optimism, many immigrant low-wage workers said progress is slow and that life in this country continues to offer spells of intense insecurity that consume their everyday lives. U.S. born workers were more likely to see their incomes rise in the past few years than immigrant workers, the poll found.

Alami has been here for more than seven years; his Circuit City job at Baileys Crossroads is the third service gig he's worked since he arrived at Reagan National Airport in January 2001 with a black carry-on bag and a flimsy windbreaker. He first worked as a busboy at a Holiday Inn for $6.50 an hour -- he did it for a year, even though he was sometimes asked to serve alcohol to customers, which is against his Muslim faith.

He then worked as a shoe salesman at Payless for six years, ending at $9.50 an hour. Only recently has he been able to afford the time to further his skills: For the next six months, Alami will begin his 15-hour day with classes in office management offered by Northern Virginia Family Service, a nonprofit in Oakton. He hopes to land a job that could double his salary.

"What choice do I have? This is what it will take," said Alami, who said that weekly trips to the mosque and religious community have been his mainstays. "There is no choice, really. You improve your life or you don't. No matter how little money you have in a particular month or week; no matter how much you have to struggle."

His standard of living has improved in incremental ways: He slept on the couch of a countryman his first four months here, and the trip to work took two buses and a train. In time, he got his own bed in the living room and a green 1989 Suzuki Sidekick to drive. Now he shares a small bedroom; and after saving for six months, he was able to visit Morocco for five weeks.

This is the kind of progress these workers believe will lead to a better standard of living for their children.

Berhanu Shitaye, 40, an Ethiopian immigrant in Fairfax County, has taped wallet-sized pictures of his son, 15, and daughter, 9, on the dashboard of a gray minivan that serves as his taxi. On the seat beside him are a pair of information technology textbooks that he is studying for a class at Strayer University. It's part of his effort to increase his skills so that he and his wife, a nurse, can afford college tuition for the children in a few years.

"Things always move forward in America, as long as you never give up," he said, taking a break at a Starbucks at Potomac Yards. "That's why my children will do better."

It has been a difficult odyssey for the family: The couple attended school in Russia, then moved to Germany where they lived in a scruffy flat near Nuremberg. There, their son contracted Hepatitis A from the poor living conditions and they had to fight for his medical care. Finally, they won a chance to come to the United States. They see hope for the next generation, Shitaye said, because moving here has been a step up from the struggles in Ethiopia and Europe.

"Look around . . . things are hard, yes," he said as he gestured to his cab, which brings him about $90 a day after he pays his company's weekly fees. "And we have suffered in our own way, my family. But to think that life will not be better for your children . . . you can't think that way. It will be because you will make it that way."

Polling director Jon Cohen and assistant polling analyst Kyle Dropp contributed to this report.

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