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Foundation aims to help L.A. immigrants

The California Community Foundation plans a campaign to help L.A. immigrants become more active citizens by helping them learn English, improve job skills and increase civic participation.

February 10, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

A leading California foundation plans today to announce a broad campaign to help Los Angeles immigrants become more active citizens with a new $3.75-million, five-year program to help them learn English, improve job skills and increase civic participation.

The California Community Foundation in Los Angeles also is set to release a 75-page report that documents the essential and dynamic role immigrants play in the regional economy and suggests ways to help them become even more productive.

Immigrants make up nearly half the Los Angeles workforce and contribute nearly 40% of the county's gross regional product, with rates of entrepreneurship higher than their native-born counterparts, according to the report by Manuel Pastor and Rhonda Ortiz of the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. Despite lower-than-average wages, immigrants also account for more than one-third of the county's spending power.

But the report also found pressing needs for more English classes, job training and leadership development programs to help immigrants acquire the skills needed to keep the state economically competitive as baby boomers age and begin to retire. About 28% of L.A. County residents are baby boomers who will eventually need to be replaced in the workforce -- many of them by immigrants who on average are less skilled and educated.

"The fates of Los Angeles County and immigrants are intertwined," said Antonia Hernandez, foundation president. "The programs that will most benefit this county are tied to our economic vibrancy, and that is tied to our immigrant workforce."

In response to the report's call for more private efforts to help immigrants become better citizens, the foundation plans today to release the first of its requests for proposals to improve English fluency, widen access to social services and build cross-cultural trust.

Hernandez called the proposals the start of a "comprehensive approach to integrating immigrants into the fabric of Southern California life" and said she hoped the seed money would encourage other foundations, businesses and community organizations to join the initiative.

Hernandez said that lack of English skills was one of the greatest impediments for immigrants to move up the economic ladder. Although 45% of immigrants who arrived in Los Angeles in the last decade speak English well, nearly half of those who work in the two industries with the highest concentration of foreign-born workers -- production/building and grounds cleaning/maintenance -- are not proficient, according to Ortiz. Yet researchers have found that the ability to speak English can raise wages by up to 20%.

To help rectify what the report called a "striking shortage" of English-language programs, the foundation plans to fund two-year grants totaling $150,000 for instructional technology and workplace English classes. One ground-breaking program identified by Pastor and Ortiz is collaboration between the Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce and the Rancho Santiago Community College District to teach English to 50,000 Santa Ana workers in 70 locations around the city by 2010; the program offers a home language kit for those unable to attend on-site classes.

In addition, the foundation plans to offer grants ranging from $25,000 to $200,000 to increase immigrant access to social services, increase civic engagement and build trust between immigrants and native-born populations.

The report specifically cited tensions in South Los Angeles, where seven major public high schools, for instance, changed from 85% African American in the early 1980s to more than 70% Latino today. The report called on continued investment in African American communities.

Hernandez and Pastor said they aimed to change public perceptions of immigrants as social burdens to assets. As a practical matter, they said, immigrants are here to stay.

"We have the largest number of immigrants in the country, and we have to figure out how to make them succeed," Pastor said. "If they and their children do well, the region does well."

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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