Howard County Welcoming All Cultures
As people from around the world come to Howard County, is there enough support to help immigrants adjust?
In Howard County, more than 42,000 residents claim another country as home, and about 50,000 speak a language other than English when they're with family.
That's 16 and 19 percent of the population, respectively. In Maryland overall, according to the U.S. Census's 2009 American Community Survey released in mid-December, 12 percent of the population is foreign-born with 15 percent speaking a different language at home.
As immigrant populations continue to grow in Howard County, municipal groups and individuals have found creative ways to work together for the benefit of this increasingly diverse population that is settling in the area.
"They're coming here because their family members are here," said Walter Rodriguez, one of two immigration counselors at the Foreign Born Information and Referral Network (FIRN). "They're coming to Howard County because of jobs and the education system. Some could live better in different places, but immigrants are willing to pay for the quality of life and schools."
Rodriguez, a native of Uruguay, said the non-profit organization helps newcomers to the country with everything from finding work to interpreting documents to fulfilling the requirements to become citizens.
The number of foreign-born Howard County residents has risen 2 percent since 2000, according to census data. That growth, which amounts to about 14,500 people, adds pressure on municipalities to be able to provide services – and accessibility to those services -- for people who speak different languages and have different customs.
County officials say they're up for the challenge.
"The investments we make in education, public safety, our environment, recreation and parks, help ensure that people see our community as place of opportunity for all," County Council President Calvin Ball said.
Diversity is "definitely on the county's radar," said Kevin Enright, county spokesman. At a recent meeting about the county's 2010 General Plan, he said, "every department talked about how the increasing diversity is having an impact and wanting to be sure we were addressing those needs.
"It is always a challenge to best meet the needs of our residents when we have such diversity, but we are committed to doing so."
Enright cited the commitment of county staff and organizations such as FIRN to helping the foreign-born learn their way around the county. And, he said, many emerging nonprofit cultural groups such as the Korean American Center, Conexiones and the Chinese Language School are providing additional support to immigrants from around the world.
The county allocated $200,000 to FIRN in fiscal year 2010, about a third of the organization's funding; the remainder comes from grants. The additional resources, provided by organizations such as the Columbia Foundation, mean FIRN can provide services to immigrants for about a third of what it would cost the county to do on its own, according to Hector Garcia, FIRN's executive director.
Still, the county offers a host of programs, itself, that officials say are helping immigrants adjust to life in Maryland.
"Diversity is one of our strengths," said County Council member Courtney Watson, a former member of the Howard County School Board. "It has been on my radar screen since my time on the school board."
At Howard County Public Schools, students from 85 countries speak more than 75 languages . "We fund resources, such as ESOL teachers and translation services for parents," Watson said.
Another school program, focused not just on students, but their parents, is the International Parent Leadership Program, which helps adults get comfortable with the school system in which their children are enrolled. And, FIRN has a volunteer program, LEAP, that provides supplemental tutoring in schools without ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) instruction.
At the police department, several measures are in place to ensure language and cultural differences don't create a barrier between the community and police officers.
Training begins before officers hit the streets. The department's multicultural council, which is made up of leaders from different communities, visits cadets in the academy to discuss cultural differences and ways to deal with situations that have the potential to be interpreted in different ways by different people.
"It's a challenge, dealing with the growing diversity," Chief William McMahon said at the December meeting of the Citizens' Advisory Council. "On one level, there's English. The next level is cultural understanding between segments of the public."
In some cultures, for instance, direct eye contact may be a sign of respect while in others it might be seen as threatening. Going into situations with that kind of cultural knowledge can lessen the chance of misinterpretation, making the officer's job easier and the civilian's experience more comfortable.
There are about a dozen Spanish-speaking officers in the department, and four or five who speak Korean, the language of one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in Howard County, according to census data.
Officers are paid a bit more for language skills, McMahon said, and the department employs an hourly employee – not a police officer – who works a 40-hour week, driving out to calls when an interpreter is needed.
But, McMahon said, it's not enough. "We need him more than 40 hours a week."
FIRN needs help, too. During the past few years, FIRN has lost about $400,000 in funding and, Garcia said, the group may soon turn to individuals for donations in addition to grants. And they need volunteers – anything that can help handle the more than 12,000 people that come in to the four-person office a year.
Despite the small staff, Garcia said FIRN does its best to help everyone. "It's difficult to refuse a client, sometimes we're here until 8 or 9 at night."
At the end of the day, Rodriguez said that he's done a good job if people leave with accurate information; nothing more, nothing less.
"An immigrant is a person with a strong will," Rodriguez said. "We just give them what they need."