This November, the Spanish-American Committe on Cleveland's westside celebrates 40 years of helping new Hispanic and Latino arrivals assimilate, and four decades of providing free services to the existing community. Meanwhile, the city's Hispanic and Latino community is growing, and so is the need for services. In part one of WKSU's weeklong series, "Here Goes the Neighborhood," Kevin Niedermier reports.
You could call Cleveland's Spanish-American Committee a social service clearing house for the community. Executive Director, Rose Rodriguez-Bardwell, says the organization's programs focus on day care, employment training, housing and adult learning. And once a week there is an immigration clinic. Many programs are collaborations with other institutions. But she says it's still not enough.
Bardwell: We're looked upon as coming here for every problem, so Latinos come here for every other issue, and we don't have enough capacity in house to deal with every issue, and that's where it's very important to come up with collaboratives and partnerships that we're able to leverage the needs of the community. Right now what is an extremely big issue is the level of education right now. We do have a GED class, however, the individuals who are testing in order to get into the GED class don't even meet those basic requirements needed to enter the class, so were needing a pre-GED class, which, is coupled with the language barrier, daycare, employment and basic skills training."
The Spanish-American Committee's programs are open to people of any ethnicity. But most of the clients are from the growing Hispanic population. Though just how many Hispanics actually live in Cleveland is a hard number to pin down according to Bardwell.
Bardwell: "There's approximately, I think the last census, there was about 33-34 thousand Latinos. And those are individuals who filled out the census. A lot of Latinos do not like to fill out information, just because they have a belief, where it came from I'm not exactly sure, that you don't fill out documentation, you might sign it wrong, they might take your Social Security away, they might find out where you live. There's just not a whole lot of trust right there in the government."
Cleveland Attorney Santiago Feliciano represents the Spanish-American Committee as well as other local Hispanic social service agencies. Some of his individual clients are illegal immigrants. And he says the fear of being caught can lead to some extreme behavior.
Feliciano: "What I wind up with is a lot of illegal immigrants, which is so sad, who are trying to buy houses, people find out that they're illegal, they take their
down payments, and they know there is no recourse for them. Because if they go to the court system and try to sue, it's going to come out their here illegally,
so they're targets. I have had several of them come to me in tears after they have gone to other attorneys after automobile accidents, and then they come to me and they say, supposedly we got a settlement and the attorney took all the money, what can you do for us Mr. Feliciano? And I say fine, we'll report them to the bar, and they say no, no, la migra, la migra."
Feliciano says a year ago most law enforcement and judicial officials would have processed an illegal immigrant for a minor infraction without making an issue of their citizenship status. But today, they're much stricter since immigration reform has become a hot topic nationally and here in Ohio. 9-11 also contributed to that change of attitude. He says even legal immigrants, like this client, are treated more harshly.
Feliciano: "He injured his back at work and the company didn't have an insurance plan, ultimately his wife's insurance plan covered him. To make a very long story short, he ended up on Oxycontin because of his back and he became addicted to it. He wrote one, again he never should have done this, he wrote one prescription, changed it, because with narcotics you have to get a fresh one every 30 days, he doubled it up because he was addicted to them. Well, I got him treatment in lieu of where the court says, and they looked at him and said this is a father this and that, really, that this was not some street pusher whatever, whatever. Immigration found out and said you've been charged with a felony. He was deported after being here like 16 years."
Feliciano points out that illegal workers also pay taxes, if their employers take them out of the pay check....but of course, if taxes are withheld, the illegal workers never claim them because they don't want the I-R-S involved. And while the immigration debate continues, he says Hispanics and Latinos, whether legal or illegal, help replace the Cleveland residents who are leaving the city in droves.
Forhinsia Ramos has worked for Cleveland's Spanish-American Committee since it was established in 1966. Overall, she believes things have changed for the better during this 40-years. She sees better integration of all ethnic groups in the surrounding neighborhoods. But Ramos would like to see better housing opportunities for her clients, and for the organization she has spent most of life helping build.
Ramos: "I have dream of one day, seeing my agency in a better looking place because we do serve so many people, that when outsiders come we would love to see this office better, and this is one of my dream being achieved."
The Spanish-American Committee is looking for a larger building.
Director Rose Bardwell says they do not intend to add more programs,
But they hope to expand the capacity of their existing list of services to
accommodate the growing need in the city the U.S. Census Bureau calls the nation's poorest.
I'm Kevin Niedermier, 89-7 WKSU.
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