Immigrants make up the background of not just the service, construction, and childcare industries here in the D.C. region, but also a huge swath of high tech and a range of other industries. To understand the problems that need to be tackled to encourage immigrants have all the opportunities they deserve in the D.C. area, we spoke with Paula Fitzgerald, executive director at Ayuda.
ABERMAN: Well, tell everybody a bit about a Ayuda.
FITZGERALD: Ayuda provides legal services, social services, and language access services to low income immigrants in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
ABERMAN: Why are those so important to immigrants?
FITZGERALD: A lot of low income immigrants are vulnerable. They need to obtain legal status in order to work and support their families here in the States. So, the first thing we see is the need for immigration legal services to help people get the status they need to be able to work. And then, we also work with a lot of immigrants who are victims of crime, and they often need social services to help them recover from their victimization. That includes therapy, and case management, sometimes connecting them to shelter, or other services. Ayuda has a strong program to serve victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, and also serves a lot of children who have either been abused, abandoned, or neglected.
ABERMAN: Is this largely because, when people are here and their legal status is unclear, or they’re working through the process of becoming legally resident, they’re just afraid to go to authorities for help?
FITZGERALD: There is a lot of fear, amongst immigrants, of the authorities, of seeking help, and Ayuda, having been around now for 45 years, gets a lot of its clients through word of mouth referrals. So, they might know someone who’s come to us for help, and we were able to assist them. And so, there is a trust in our organization by the immigrant community, that’s been built over time, through a lot of work on our part serving the immigrant community.
ABERMAN: Do you find that, in the current political environment, it’s harder to actually work in this in this community?
FITZGERALD: The work definitely has gotten harder over the last few years. The case law has been more challenging for us. The cases have become more difficult, and then there is also a reluctance, sometimes, for some of our immigrant crime victims to report their victimization, because they fear the police, making the report to the police, or they fear going to court, or following up, because they worry about the consequences for them and their children.
ABERMAN: I find that here in the region, a lot of immigrants, they are invisible to a lot of people. But yet, when you look at things like construction, for example, or hospitality, the percentage of people that are immigrants working in these industries are 30, 40 percent, and in the high tech industry, it’s 10 to 15 percent. Literally, our local economy would fail without these immigrants, but yet, you would think that they’re not essential. I mean, how much of this challenge is providing people with the ladder step into, you know, being part of the visible part of our community?
FITZGERALD: We work with very hard working clients, many, like you said, who work in construction, hospitality, child care. That’s a commonality amongst our clients, we see them really supporting the economy, supporting all of us in being able to go about our day to day activities. When you go to a restaurant, it’s very likely that it’s an immigrant who’s preparing your food, potentially serving it or washing the dishes. Child care oftentimes is provided by immigrants, in order for many of us to be able to go to work, we have an immigrant who’s helping us take care of our children back at home. And we see this with our clients. Very hardworking, oftentimes working many jobs to support their children and their families. I do believe it hasn’t quite been seen, and appreciated, to the extent that immigrants are supporting all of us, and supporting our economy.
ABERMAN: I would also argue that, with the demographics in our nation, and the way things are going, that without the dynamic aspects of new entrants who are desperately trying to get ahead, you lose that entrepreneurial zeal that really has driven the country for last 250 years.
FITZGERALD: We have a lot of immigrant entrepreneurs who open restaurants, who start construction companies, who start food trucks, for example, and are then able to hire additional people, too, as the businesses continue to grow and expand.
ABERMAN: So tell me, before I let you go, I noticed you just opened an office in Maryland. What does that mean for the immigrant community here in our region?
FITZGERALD: There is a great deal of need in the D.C. suburbs for immigration legal services. Ayuda started in D.C., and has been serving that community for a long time. What it means is that Maryland residents will have another resource in Maryland. We’re in Silver Spring, giving quality legal services, social services, and language access services. It is a great expansion of the service provision in Maryland, for us to now be there providing services.
ABERMAN: Well I’m sure I speak for many of the 100,000 people that have been helped by your organization over the years, and the tens of thousands to come. Paula, thanks for the work that you and Ayuda are doing here in our region.