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In Dealing With Immigrants, Familiarity Can Breed Respect

December 21, 1985|AMALIA DUARTE | Times Staff Writer

For a Vietnamese immigrant who remembers the war, being ordered by a policeman to hold his hands behind his head can be a terrifying experience.

In Vietnam, that was the position for execution, not arrest.

Some Vietnamese immigrants, thinking they were about to be shot, recently fought with police who tried to handcuff them while they were in this position, according to Robert Nava, an education specialist for the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

The cultural miscue is just one example of problems faced by police and other government employees who work with new immigrants, Nava said.

"Many of these people (the Vietnamese) are from the mountains, they've never been in an urban environment before. They are in complete culture shock," he said.

Cross-Cultural Training Program

To teach county workers about minority groups, the Human Relations Commission has developed a cross-cultural training program.

Through lectures, discussion and films, the four-hour training session attempts to dispel misconceptions about minorities to help workers who come into contact with new immigrants.

Commission staff workers said that with affirmative action low on the list of priorities for Orange County public service agencies and with Latino and Asian populations growing faster than the majority population, cultural training is crucial.

Nava said there are no bilingual officers in the Santa Ana CHP division and very few minorities in social service agencies and police departments in the county.

One complaint filed to the CHP in Spanish was thrown into the wastebasket by an officer because he could not read the report, Nava said.

'Big Problem Is Recruiting'

Sylvia Singh-Mann, the commission's police community liaison, said: "The big problem is recruitment. Whatever you (public agencies) are doing is not working. There is not enough bilingual staff."

The cultural problems can be resolved, but the language barrier remains the biggest block to effectively working with non-English-speaking immigrants, Singh-Mann said.

"There are agencies who have told us they use janitors to take calls from Spanish-speaking people," she said.

The cultural training program specifically addresses areas where conflicts might occur between minorities and employees among the various county agencies, Nava said.

The commission is made up of six members, including one police chief appointed by the county Board of Supervisors, and five members named by the Orange County Division of the League of California Cities.

The response at first from participants in cultural training is often lukewarm, Nava said. "The attitude is: 'Why do we have to learn about them?'

'Not Asking for Empathy'

"We are not asking their empathy. We just give them information to make their jobs easier, so they can see their self-interest in the training," Nava said.

Cultural awareness can be as simple as informing Mexican-Americans, who come from a land where bribes are commonplace, that passing money under the table to a welfare worker is against the law.

Some other examples of differences in culture are that Latinos do not look authority figures directly in the eye and that Mexican women typically will not allow a strange man into their home in the daytime, Nava said.

For some Vietnamese and Latino immigrants, there is often an overall mistrust of government that can also hinder county workers, he said.

But instructors tread a fine line between teaching people about cultural differences and perpetuating stereotypes by saying all Mexicans or Asians have certain behaviors, he said.

Subtle Prejudice Exists

Nava said overt racism toward immigrants is not usually a problem to overcome, but some subtle prejudices can exist.

At the start of one training session conducted by Nava and colleague Benedict Boyd, Boyd asked where the audience thought the black population in Orange County originated.

"They all sat there saying nothing until one guy yells out: 'Compton.' The whole place burst out laughing, and we did too. They were testing us to see our reaction," he said.

"By not being defensive we broke the ice, and they listened to our presentation," he said.

Some county police chiefs agree that cultural training is important for their departments.

Placentia Police Chief Hal Fischer, who is a Human Relations commissioner, said: "I think it is excellent. We are dealing with a variety of cultures and a police officer's approach might sometimes be modified.

'Good to Have an Understanding'

"Other countries' approaches to law enforcement are somewhat different, and it is good to have an understanding of what that view might be," he said.

Fullerton Police Chief Martin Hairabedian, a former commissioner, agreed that cultural training is vital.

"We should be acquainted with different types of people as much as possible. But it is difficult to train for every minority," he said.

"We do have a great need for Spanish-speaking officers because the language barrier is very difficult to deal with," he said. He said the department has about 12 bilingual officers.

Besides pointing out cultural differences, the program also teaches how similar the immigrant's culture can be to an American's, Nava said.

These immigrants may "speak a different language, eat different foods and look different, but we find there are basic similarities among our cultures," Nava said.

Such values as family unity, a belief in hard work and respecting elders cross cultural barriers, Nava said.

"We find afterward that people change their minds about these people (the immigrants)," Nava said.

"Someone will come up to me after the program and say: 'That was the way I was raised.' When they say that, then I know we have done our job," he said.

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