New Americans get Governor's ear through advisory council

He's been here 33 years. But Dorchester's Binh Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Community of Massachusetts and a Vietnamese immigrant, still remembers how difficult it was to learn English, which slowed access to the opportunities that drew him to America.

State's policymakers are lending their ears to challenges that immigrants like Nguyen face. Immigrants - including refugees and those who are undocumented - are invited to a series of meetings called the New Americans Agenda.

The goal of this statewide project launched by Gov. Deval Patrick in July - is to devise a series of policies to better integrate the increasing refugee and immigrant populations into the civic and economic life of Massachusetts.

The Governor's Advisory Council will gather input based on public meetings, research, suggestions from state agencies and interviews with experts. Policy recommendations will be made to the Governor in July 2009, which will be shaped into a New Americans Plan. The plan will address a host of issues including-citizenship assistance, employment and workforce training, English language proficiency, education, civil rights, fair housing, healthcare, public safety among others.

At the first community meeting held at Chelsea High School on Oct. 20, attended by over 200 people, more than two-dozen people testified, including some from Dorchester.

"The Governor appreciates and recognizes the contributions that new arrivals make to Massachusetts," said Richard Chacon, executive director of Massachusetts's Office for Refugees and Immigrants.

Immigrants represent 14 percent of population of Massachusetts and 17 percent of its workforce. But out of the 907,000 immigrants in the state about 175,000 of them are here illegally, according to a report released by the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth.

The New American's Agenda will benefit all, irrespective of their immigrant status, said Chacon. "The Governor believes that enforcement of immigration laws is a federal issue and the state is not responsible."

Gov. Patrick's approach is markedly different from his predecessor Mitt Romney.

In January 2007, Gov. Patrick rescinded former Gov. Mitt Romney's executive order allowing state troopers to collaborate with federal immigration agents. State prison's no longer screen for illegal immigrants for deportation.

"Mitt Romney was very suspicious and disrespectful of immigrants, and used immigration as a political issue during the presidential elections," said Thomas Keown, spokesperson for the Irish Immigration Center.

The trial for Patrick, he said, "will depend on how he responds to the feedback."

All immigrants, regardless of status, pay sales, property and income taxes. "It is an often forgotten fact," he added.

It takes some courage and creativity to initiate such an innovative program, said Shuya Ohno, director of communications at Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). "It is a clever approach not to use taxpayers money."

Though the economy is diving towards recession and Patrick has ordered state agencies to make $1 billion in budget cuts and spending controls, the New Americans Agenda will not stress the state's budget. The project is funded by grants and private donations totalling $200,000 from Carnegie Foundation, the Barr Foundation, the Bob Stewart Hildreth Charitable Foundation and Partners HealthCare.

The new policies will also address the problems that communities with large and diverse immigrant populations face while integrating new arrivals.

Dorchester is home to immigrants from Cape Verde, Haiti, Vietnam, Poland, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Cambodia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Ireland, and dozens of other countries around the world.

"The importance of Dorchester is also in welcoming new immigrants and resettlement of refugee population," said Richard Chacon. Many outreach efforts have been made to engage Dorchester's immigrant communities, he said.

"It is really great that we are included," said Binyam Tamene, executive director of the Ethiopian Community Mutual Assistance Association.

"This is an opportunity to bring to the attention of the Governor that there is an Ethiopian community here in the greater Boston area," said Tamene, who lives in Dorchester.

There are more than 1,000 Ethiopians living in Dorchester, he said. To help the immigrants become part of the mainstream, they need "some kind of helping hand,"

Because of economic hurdles, cultural shocks, discrimination and emotional alienation, immigrants are often stressed out, he said. As a result they get embroiled in depression, alcohol and substance abuse, and domestic violence.

The immigrants and refugees find themselves in a "difficult situation," said, Abdirahaman Yusuf, executive director of Somali Development Center at Jamaica Plain. Life is usually complex in foreign land. "But they are happy to be living in a country where there is peace, security and opportunity."

Yusuf, who is also involved in resettling refugees in Dorchester from different African countries such as Somalia and Sudan, said the Governor should ensure greater opportunities for adult education, assistance with citizenship and more jobs.

Immigrant communities face more challenges, because of "high dropout rates in schools and public safety issues," said Ohno from MIRA.

The Haitians are the largest group of immigrants in Dorchester and Mattapan, said Jean Marc Jean Baptiste, executive director of Haitian American Public Health Initiative.

"A lot of people will be positively affected," he said. This project will help find out what can be done to help the immigrants become a part of the "fabric of the Commonwealth," he added.

The locations for the four remaining meetings are New Bedford, Lowell, Springfield and Fitchburg.

Recommendations can also be sent to the Office for Refugees and Immigrants, 18 Tremont St., Suite 1020, Boston, MA 02108. Call 617-727-7888 for more information.

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