In Pittsburgh, One of the ‘Best Cities’ to Live, Immigrants Still Face Barriers

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In Pittsburgh, One of the ‘Best Cities’ to Live, Immigrants Still Face Barriers

India Amos

Pittsburgh’s recent economic prosperity has not translated for its newest arrivals.

Like other parts of the country, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has seen an increase in immigration in recent years. From 2010 to 2016, the Steel City welcomed over 22,500 immigrants. A metro area focused on increasing diversity, Pittsburgh has a variety of immigrant and refugee populations, the largest of which include Bhutanese, Chinese, Indian, and Latino groups. Pittsburgh has been especially successful with its Latino population and, thanks to community and affordability, is regarded as one of the best cities to live for Latino immigrants, the nation’s second-largest ethnic demographic. However, Pittsburgh continues to have issues that impede immigrants from accessing basic resources.

The city’s expanding Latino population still encounters a deficit of Spanish-speakers and Spanish-language options in Pennsylvania’s government organizations. The Department of Transportation (DOT) website, for example, offers no Spanish-language options to learn about obtaining a driver’s license or to gain information about what type of paperwork a new resident would need to file in Pennsylvania—information that would be especially pertinent to immigrants.

Julian Asenjo, executive director of Casa San Jose in Pittsburgh, described the DOT as “briskly unhelpful” with non-English-speakers, and said that getting Spanish-speaking assistance when calling the DOT is equally as difficult. Casa San Jose’s mission is to serve as a resource center that “advocates for and empowers Latinos by promoting integration and self-sufficiency,” according to Asenjo, who said that when language barriers like that at the DOT surface, it is due to a lack of bilingual employees in positions that interact with immigrants.

As someone who works as a liaison between the Latino immigrant community and public officials, Asenjo has seen these communication issues firsthand. However, he believes the majority of departments in Pennsylvania have risen to meet the expanding Latino community’s needs.

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In particular, Asenjo believes the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) has been quick to adopt a multilingual model. “They are very receptive,” Asenjo said. The ACHD’s website features a downloadable version of its program and services brochure in a variety of languages, including Spanish, French, and Nepali, reflecting Pittsburgh’s immigrant communities. Foreign-language options can connect non-English speakers to services and hotlines throughout the Pittsburgh area.

The ACHD sponsors a walk-in immunization clinic, sexually transmitted infections-HIV/AIDS clinic, and a Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program. With ACHD services provided in their native language, new Pittsburgh residents can more easily access the services they need, such as obtaining doctor information and scheduling appointments. “They want to streamline this process so it’s not harder than it needs to be,” Asenjo said. He said the ACHD offers translators and Spanish-speakers for both phone conversations and in-person consultations at ACHD facilities. “Pittsburgh is definitely improving in regard to foreign language interpretation,” according to Asenjo.

Despite the increased accessibility of foreign-language options in the Pittsburgh metro area, immigrants still oftentimes find themselves unable to access local resources, due to both language barriers and the cultural confusion that comes with living in a new country, such as navigating new health care systems, applying for coverage, and figuring out eligibility.

While lawfully-residing immigrants who meet certain residency and income requirements are eligible for Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), the process can be intimidating. For these reasons, local, community-based organizations such as Casa San Jose facilitate the acculturation process. Casa San Jose offers a bilingual staff that assists with providing information about doctors, schools, housing, and legal topics.

The Latin American Cultural Union (LACU), a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that is dedicated to promoting Latin American and Caribbean culture, also works to increase immigrants’ visibility in the region. Their website features a list of resources available to Spanish-speakers in the Pittsburgh region, and it includes information about access to health care, as well as a collection of professional Latino networking organizations. The website also includes a Spanish-language link to the Career Development Center in the Pittsburgh area, which Latino immigrants can use to find employment opportunities around the city while speaking in their native language.

At Vibrant Pittsburgh, drawing immigrants and refugees to Southwestern Pennsylvania is a priority. Melanie Harrington, the organization’s president and CEO, said, “Most of the work around immigrants in the Pittsburgh area is really around creating the most welcoming [city] to come to.”

While organizations like Vibrant Pittsburgh are dedicated to connecting refugees and immigrants with jobs, Pittsburgh’s recent economic prosperity has not translated for its newest arrivals. Pittsburgh has had “relatively slow job growth over the decades, particularly in lower-skilled jobs,” according to the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research’s Christopher Briem, speaking with the Pittsburgh Gazette. Organizations such as the ACHD are interested in connecting immigrant populations with lower-skilled jobs. They provide opportunities for people in the food service industry to take their test for Food Protection Certification in languages such as Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Canadian French. However, with few employment opportunities, this skill is not as useful as it could be.

In a government-conducted research project entitled “The Welcoming Pittsburgh Plan,” 46 percent of foreign-born immigrants say their decision to remain in the area depends largely on jobs as well as family. Possibly due to a lack of economic opportunities, despite its activeness in regard to recruiting and retaining immigrant populations, Pittsburgh maintains some of the lowest levels of diversity when compared to other cities of similar size. There are only about 21,000 Hispanic people living in Allegheny County, a number that is not surprising considering Pittsburgh’s general population continues to decline.

For people like Harrington, though, these statistics are not intimidating. “Our strategy has been to work and coordinate events with our employers, [and] support, work with, and collaborate with the diverse community groups in our region,” Harrington said. “[I]f we can amplify their work and visibility, it both helps retention and diversity of the community.”

“We may not be the first landing spot, but after people get their bearings and check out the rest of the country, we might become their second spot,” she said. “And that’s something we shoot for.”