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The Boston Globe

Arrivals Change Latino Portrait Immigrants Alter Community's Fabric

BY Monica Rhor, Globe Staff

December 18, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

The face of Latino Massachusetts is changing.

Within the last decade, the number of new arrivals from El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras leapt by 85 percent, as families fleeing civil war, natural disaster, and political upheaval in those countries streamed into the Boston area and altered the fabric of a Latino community long dominated by Puerto Ricans, according to a study released today.

The study, conducted by the Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, examined the needs and impact of the burgeoning populations, which represent some of the fastest- growing groups in the region.

The new arrivals are bringing new cultures, traditions, and culinary tastes, bolstering the area's work force, especially in the service industry and manual jobs. And they are revitalizing neighborhoods in Chelsea, East Boston, and Somerville.

But they are also bringing a host of new concerns and issues that must be addressed by community organizations and political leaders, said Miren Uriarte, director of the Gaston Institute and lead researcher of the study.

Unlike the Latino population that preceded them, the emerging groups are predominantly immigrant. About 75 percent of new arrivals from El Salvador, Colombia, Honduras, and Guatemala are immigrants; and about half have been in the country less than 10 years. By contrast, Puerto Ricans - who first settled in the Boston area in the years just after World War II and still make up 46 percent of the state's 428,729 Latinos - are US citizens.

For the newcomers from the four countries studied, as well as those in the fast-growing Mexican community, however, the immigrant experience and issues related to legal status are threads that run through every part of their daily lives, affecting success at work, in school, and at home.

The majority of newcomers are here under temporary visas or as undocumented workers, the report found. In both cases, the immigrants often lead a tightrope existence, working long hours for low pay because they don't have work permits, while living in constant fear of detection.

"This is not something that is happening out there on the border in Mexico," said Uriarte. "It is happening here, and we need to address it. People in general don't realize that this population is changing at a fast rate. There is a lack of commitment to these populations. Until now, it's been easy to ignore the situation of immigrants."

However, the growing presence of the new immigrant groups may now force those issues to the forefront and rewrite the mistaken perception that Latinos are homo geneous group, the report said.

"This growing diversity requires attention, as Latinos learn of each other's experiences, the issues they share in common, and those that affect one sector of the population or another," said the study. "Most Latinos in Massachusetts are not immigrants; they are born in the US or Puerto Rico. So, in many ways, Latinos, no matter where they have been born, need to own this immigration, too, and with it, the responsibility for making immigrant rights a policy priority and making the situation of recent immigrants a top concern."

Many Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan immigrants qualify for temporary refugee status through immigration programs for specially designated countries beset by war or natural disasters. Under those programs, which are subject to renewal by the US government, immigrants have legal permission to work in the United States.

But a large number of the new arrivals and the majority of Colombian immigrants are in the country illegally, living in constant fear of discovery by immigration officials.

The report found great variations in education level and social class among the new arrivals.

Colombian immigrants, for example, tend to come from upper- and middle-class backgrounds and often have college degrees, while many Central American newcomers did not graduate from high school. The newcomers tend to be young, with a median age between 26 and 29. They also tend to have larger families than the overall Latino population and the state's general population, and more families are headed by married couples.

Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the new Latino arrivals is their presence in the work force, the report found. Researchers found that in most of the newcomer households, several people are working two or three jobs to help support the family. Often, those jobs are in the service industry, landscaping, construction, and other manual-labor jobs, the report found.

"Their most pressing issue is making sure they have enough means to support their families back home and their families here," said Edwin Argueta, a community organizer at East Boston Ecumenical Community Council.

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