“We understand that this is the future”

Central Falls becomes an immigrant “Welcoming City”

PROVIDENCE — American society has always been somewhat schizophrenic on its views towards immigration. On Mon-day, the city of Central Falls let it be known that they were clearly in favor of welcoming immigrants to the country.

“We understand that this is the future,” said Mayor James A. Diossa of Central Falls, who is the son of Colombian immigrants. “By us joining this initiative, we’ll not only have a welcoming city but [the precursor to] a welcoming state.”

The initiative which the 1.2 square mile city has signed on to — making it the first in Rhode Island to do so — is the Welcoming Cities, a part of the “Welcoming America” campaign of which the DORCAS International Institute of Rhode Island is a part of. The Welcoming America is a campaign whose objective is to link up new immigrants with those who are already well established within the country in order to make transitions easier.

The addition of Central Falls to the list of Welcoming Cities was celebrated at the Rhode Island Foundation, 1 Union Square, Providence, by about 50 immigration activists from varying organizations across the state.

“The smallest city in the smallest state is now on the map,” said Michelle DePlante, the head of the R.I. chapter of the group, “Welcoming Rhode Island.”

DORCAS also took advantage of the opportunity to unveil its new report, “Global Rhode Island: An Overview of Rhode Island’s Foreign Born population.”

“I love it cause it’s not thick,” said Neil Steinberg, the President and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, before getting a bit more serious. “We all get it here, in this room, but there’s still a lot of people who don’t get it in our state… They don’t get that there’s a changing demographic and that these opportunity gaps will paralyze us.”

Neil Steinberg, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, addresses the crowd at the event announcing that Central Falls will be an immigrant "Welcoming City." (Kevin G. Andrade\O Jornal)

Neil Steinberg, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, addresses the crowd at the event announcing that Central Falls will be an immigrant “Welcoming City.” (Kevin G. Andrade\O Jornal)

According to the report, Central Falls had good reason to become the first city in the state to join the Welcoming initiative, with about 40 percent of its approximately 19,000 residents being foreign born. The next highest foreign born populations in the state are concentrated in Providence, East Providence, Pawtucket, Valley Falls and Cranston.
The percentage of foreign born residents statewide is 13.3 percent.
The city is 60.3 percent latino, with large populations of Dominicans, Colombians, Puerto Ricans and Central Americans being represented according to the 2010 Census. From the same data, 1,773 Portuguese and 1,153 Cape Verdeans reside in the city.

The report, however, did release some dire statistics in regards to immigrant populations in the state, regardless of race.

Naturalized citizens have a 60.6 percent rate of home-ownership in the state, while those who are not yet naturalized have only a 23.7 percent rate.

The report also points out, “Of the 994,145 Rhode Islanders ages 5 and over, 20.9 percent (207,678) speak a language other than English.”

The most widely spoken are Spanish\Spanish Creole (109,951) and Portuguese\Portuguese Creole (31,157). DORCAS is still cautious to point out that it does not mean that English is not spoken amongst the states’ immigrants.

“This does not imply that foreign born individuals are not English proficient,” the report continues. “17.8% of foreign born individuals in Rhode Island speak only English, and 32.8% speak English ‘very well.’”

Those who were in attendance paid close attention to the observations made at the conference. (Kevin G. Andrade\O Jornal)

Those who were in attendance paid close attention to the observations made at the conference. (Kevin G. Andrade\O Jornal)

But the language barrier does present some issues for educational attainment, according to DORCAS. Thirty-three percent of the foreign-born population has less than a high school diploma. When you split those groups up between naturalized citizens and noncitizens, noncitizens without high school diplomas make up 41 percent of that group.

“Children really struggle due to English language proficiency,” said DePlante.

That is a problem that affects all immigrant communities, but especially Spanish speakers.

“Approximately 75 percent of English Language Learners are Latino,” said Ana Cano Morales, Director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University, in response to a question posed to DORCAS at the conference by O Jornal. “The ones who are struggling with it the most are Spanish-speakers.”

When compared to the rest of the student population, only nine percent of 8th grade math students in ELL programs scored proficiently compared to 57 percent of the student population as a whole. For 8th grade reading proficiency, only 19 percent were proficient compared to 74 percent for the student population as a whole.

The report also points to an under-utilization of highly skilled laborers, known as “Brain waste,” within the state. Foreign born populations in R.I. are 25.7 percent unemployed or in low-skill jobs compared to only 15.9 percent of native born Rhode Islanders.

Those present know that there is still a long road ahead before the state truly utilizes the full potential that immigrants have to offer.

“We, in Rhode Island, have an obligation to equip those graduates from our colleges and universities with the tools to go out into a world that is not homogeneous,” said Adriana I. Dawson, Director of Employer Outreach and Engagement at Roger Williams University.

The activists did note that there are advantages the state does offer to achieve that goal.

“Because of our size, we certainly do have a unique advantage,” said DePlante.

“There are a lot of services out there in communities in R.I.,” said Kathleen Cloutier, Executive Director of DORCAS. “The hard part is pooling them together.”