Immigrants flock to jobs in suburbs They are considered vital to work force

April 14, 1996|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

As Tam Le and Deip Truong commute every weekday from their Wheaton homes to jobs at a paper-recycling plant in Dorsey, they are reversing decades-old immigration patterns.

Bustling cities once beckoned foreigners with promises of plentiful factory work. But Mr. Le and Mr. Truong, Vietnamese refugees, have gone from the streets of Ho Chi Minh City to the suburbs of the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

The two, who didn't drive a car until three years ago, now are suburban commuters, part of a wave of recent immigrants who have set their sights on the expanding job market in Maryland's suburbs.

"There will be instances where inner-city sweatshops will be found" in the future, "but that will be the exception," said John Kasarda, a University of North Carolina professor who has studied extensively the growth of "edge cities" such as Columbia. "The rule will be what's happening in the suburban peripheries between Washington and Baltimore."

The recent arrest of 12 suspected illegal immigrants from Central America who were working at ADVO, a Columbia plant that processes direct mail, came as a surprise to many people in the high-income community.

But authorities on immigration and economics predict that the number of immigrants -- legal or illegal -- living and working in affluent suburbs will continue to rise.

"The immigrants go where the jobs are," said Pat Hatch, director of the Foreign-Born Information Network and Referral Service in Columbia. And these days, many entry-level jobs are found in the suburban business parks and warehouses along the highways of the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

No one can say for sure how many immigrants are toiling in corridor companies, but several company managers interviewed in the past two weeks report that foreign-born workers make up as much as half of their work forces.

Howard County officials say immigrants are essential to fully staffing dozens of warehouses and distribution facilities along U.S. 1 and other major routes.

The county's housing -- the highest-priced in the Baltimore area -- is far too expensive for low-wage workers, and the lack of adequate public transportation makes it difficult for inner-city workers to commute there.

More than half of Howard's 92,000 workers live outside the county, in many cases because they can't afford homes here, said Richard W. Story, executive director of the county Economic Development Authority.

A proposal last year from an East Baltimore group to bus as many as 500 workers to the U.S. 1 industrial corridor has not attracted funding.

'Filling a void'

The immigrants "are filling a void," Mr. Story said. "The jobs are available to anyone who wants them."

Managers of corridor plants say the benefits of hiring immigrants outweigh any difficulties posed by language barriers and immigration-related paperwork.

At ADVO, where officials estimate that immigrants from Central America make up about half of the 220-member staff, the plant manager's voice-mail greeting is in English and Spanish.

At Weyerhaeuser Paper Co. in Dorsey, where Mr. Le and Mr. Truong work for about $7 an hour, 18 native Vietnamese make up more than 20 percent of the staff, which prompted the Fortune 100 company to conduct a two-month English course for its employees last year.

"We wanted to make sure they understood basic work and safety rules," said Cindy Williams, the operations manager.

Some companies require a minimum competency in English to begin work.

About half of the 250 summer workers at East Coast Ice Cream Novelties in Laurel come from Ghana, India and other Asian countries, said Linda Hastie, the human resources manager. "They have to be able to know when someone is saying, 'Get out of the way,' " she said.

Although they may have language problems, company officials say, recent immigrants tend to be less daunted by the sometimes challenging task of commuting to suburbia, often finding ways to share rides to work. "They make it to work when a lot of people who live close by don't," Ms. Williams said.

Commuting difficulties

Commuting still isn't easy for Mr. Le and Mr. Truong, who haven't gotten used to high-speed highways. They joke that they feel safer traveling together. "Changing lanes is very scary," Mr. Truong said.

Each owns a car -- bought with money earned at the plant -- but they alternate weeks of driving so the cars will last longer.

Like Mr. Le and Mr. Truong of Wheaton, recent immigrants increasingly are moving directly to the suburbs. In the past, immigrants tended to create urban enclaves.

According to recent census figures, foreign-born people accounted for 8 percent of the population growth in Howard County and 6 percent of the growth in Anne Arundel County over the past five years, a total of about 4,600 new residents.

Howard County residents "would be amazed at the number of [foreign-born] people who live here," said Bonnie Knight, job coordinator for the Foreign-Born Information Network and Referral Service (FIRN). She regularly sees people from El

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