Economy hits elderly immigrants hard

Elderly immigrants struggle to find work in the recession.

Gerry "Ray" Geronimo standing outside at the office of the Filipino American Service Group. Geronimo is a legal immigrant in the United States, but is struggling to find work and doesn't receive Social Security.

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TESS VIGELAND: The unemployment rate for adults over age 65 has doubled since the recession began. Elderly immigrants are especially vulnerable. They have a small safety net to start with. On top of it all, legal immigrants don't get much in the way of government assistance.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler visited some immigrant communities here in Southern California and shares their stories with us.


Jeff Tyler: These elderly Filipino-Americans get together once a week to socialize. At a senior center in Los Angeles, they talk about having to make do with less. California's statewide budget cuts have reduced their supplemental income benefits. But at least they collect something.

Gerry Geronimo is 69 years old, but he doesn't get Social Security.

Gerry Geronimo: No. Not yet. I'm not yet citizen. Three more years.

He is a legal immigrant. Geronimo and his wife waited a long time for green cards.

Geronimo: Twenty-three long years we waited for the petition.

In the Philippines, Geronimo says, companies won't hire seniors.

Geronimo: You can't work. At the age of 60, you have to retire.

In the U.S., he qualifies to work, but struggles to find the opportunities.

Geronimo: I want to find a job.

He works part-time in a job-training program. Because of the economy, his hours have been cut. Together with his wife's income, they bring in less than $1,000 a month. His sister-in-law was supposed to sponsor them and help them financially. But instead, Geronimo is paying all the bills.

Geronimo: The electricity, the gas, and the water bill. She has no money at all.

As a young man in Manila, he adopted the name "Ray" and worked as a DJ.

Geronimo: 99.5 RDD, your DJ, Ray Geronimo.

He applied for a job at a Filipino radio station in Los Angeles, but hasn't heard back yet.

Other elderly immigrants come here to work in the home. They look after grand kids -- saving the family money on child care -- while the parents work at minimum wage jobs.

Steven Wallace is UCLA professor of public health, who studies trends in immigration. He says the recession has caused job losses for some two-income families, cutting their income in half. But at the same time, they still have that extra person to support.

Steven Wallace: As a result of having to stretch the dollars even further, the poverty rate among immigrant elders is higher than the poverty rate among elders as a whole.

Many elderly immigrants tend to feel responsible for the financial welfare of the extended family.

Susan Dilkes runs a social services agency in Los Angeles helping elderly Filipinos.

Susan Dilkes: In our country, the elderly are the breadwinners. They support their children. And then when they come here, and they're staying with their children, they really feel that they're a burden to them.

Only about 20 percent of U.S. immigrants arrive after the age of 50. Most transplants come as young adults. But UCLA professor Steven Wallace says, young immigrants who grow old here are often not much better off.

Wallace: Most immigrants who come to the United States are in low-wage industries. So when they retire, they don't have pensions; they don't have savings.

Wallace says immigrants need to work in the U.S. on the books for 10 years before they can claim federal benefits.

Wallace: So if you're cleaning houses and you worked for cash for 30 years and never reported that income to Social Security, you would retire with no pension, and no eligibility for Social Security or SSI.

In addition to the financial hurdles, elderly immigrants also face cultural challenges.

The recent Pacific Islander Festival in Huntington Beach was like a Polynesian battle of the bands -- showcasing the cultures of Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, and other islands. Old-country traditions are a source of pride. But elderly immigrants, steeped in those cultures, can also feel cut-off.

Greta Briand with the Pacific Islander Health Partnership works with seniors from the Marshall Islands.

Greta Briand: They cannot speak the language. So they need to have someone to go with them anywhere they want to go.

Some seniors reach the conclusion that the grass was greener in the old country. Faifua Vaifale says seniors miss the island life.

Faifua Vaifale: They want to go back home because, back home, you know, a lot of things are free.

In the U.S., you need in a job and money to survive. She says, in Samoa, seniors can feed themselves with just a fishing pole.

In Huntington Beach, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace Money.

Gerry "Ray" Geronimo standing outside at the office of the Filipino American Service Group. Geronimo is a legal immigrant in the United States, but is struggling to find work and doesn't receive Social Security.

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