Refugees in U.S. struggling to find work

Marketplace Staff Sep 10, 2010

Refugees in U.S. struggling to find work

Marketplace Staff Sep 10, 2010


Tess Vigeland: Our next story is about another population on the harsh receiving end of the recession. This time it’s not a black and white issue; it’s a multicolor and multicultural issue involving refugees. About 80,000 of them will come to the U.S. this year. But the minute they arrive in America, the clock starts ticking. Refugees only get about eight months of federal aid before they’re on their own, and the competition for even the most basic jobs is fierce.

Sadie Babits has this profile from Portland, Ore.

Sadie Habits: In Portland, almost everyone who’s resettled by the U.S. government gets help from the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

Lucy Merlot works at IRCO, and it’s her job to find work for those refugees. I asked Merlot just how difficult it’s been to find jobs during the recession.

Lucy Merlot: Ahhh goodness. Very challenging, because there’s about a thousand applicants for one job. We’re encountering that.

She wants me to meet Mervin Avila, who arrived from Cuba a few years ago. He’s middle-aged, thin and wiry. Avila says he got by OK the first year, working as an assembler for a window company and a line cook at a Mexican restaurant. But that temporary work ran out, and Merlot has been trying to find him a job for the past two years.

I meet Avila out in IRCO’s parking lot. He drives an old Datsun pickup with a camper shell on the back. And over those last two years, this truck has been his home.

Mervin Avila: The economy has me sleeping on the street and the truck doesn’t have insurance.

Avila tells me he still gets $200 a month in food stamps, which he usually sells for money. Then he skimps on food he buys so he’ll have enough left over for gas and emergency truck repairs. Avila used to be a radio host in Cuba, but he says he also did construction on the island’s fancy hotels. Now he’s willing to do any job.

Avila: I even applied to go to Alaska and they haven’t called me yet.

Habits: Is that what you’re waiting on now, is to go up to Alaska to work on a cannery?

Avila: Yes. I’m waiting, but I still haven’t heard from them and I work anywhere.

Merlot says Avila has plenty of skills despite his lack of English. But she says employers don’t care.

Merlot: Why hire someone with limited language capabilities when we could hire somebody who’s fluent in English like an American?

[A section of this transcript has been removed]

But less than half of the refugees coming to the U.S. this year will find work, according to Kay Bellor. She’s the vice president of the International Rescue Committee. Bellor says the bad economy has caused refugees to experience stress levels similar to the trauma they faced in their home countries, even for Iraqi refugees who’ve just left a war zone.

Kay Bellor: And to come seeking safety and have the safety, but then realize you’re faced with the possibility of not being able to keep that roof over your head, it’s a huge strain on the refugees.

It’s a strain that employment specialist Lucy Merlot knows all too well. She says refugees face evictions. Some have turned to illegal activities like dealing drugs and prostitution. Merlot says they’re getting desperate and frustrated, even with her.

Merlot: They are trusting that we are going to be their saviors, and the reality is we are trying our best to assist them, but we have our hands tied.

Merlot and the relief agency she works for have their own set of challenges. IRCO recently laid off a handful of staff members to keep the books in the black. For now, its budget is safe, until the new fiscal year begins in October. After that, even Lucy Merlot may be looking for work.

In Portland, Ore., I’m Sadie Babits for Marketplace Money.

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