Study looks at cultural issues

Research shows problems faced by foreign-born residents


Learning how to live in Howard County can be confusing for immigrants and those raised in other cultures, according to a study due for release today that also finds that native-born Americans often are confused as well when they encounter people from foreign cultures.

"The report makes an important distinction between integration and accepting cultural diversity," said Roy Appletree, director of Columbia's private, nonprofit FIRN, formerly the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, which was the lead agency for the report. "Even though we are [racially and economically] integrated does not mean we are as open culturally to cultural diversity."

The report, conducted by the Association for the Study and Development of Community, looked at Howard County's diverse foreign-born population - the third-largest in Maryland and growing faster than the majority, home-grown county population.

The report found that, in another decade, the foreign-born population in Howard is expected to be 16.7 percent of the total, or 46,000 people, from virtually every continent. That is compared with 11.3 percent (28,113) of the total in 2000, 6.1 percent in 1990, and 5 percent in 1970. Estimates in 2000 were that another 6,000 undocumented immigrants were in the county.

In addition, there are 2,046 students in Howard schools this academic year learning English as a second language, a 238 percent increase in one decade.

Growth in the foreign-born community is one reason the Horizon Foundation and Howard County government put up the $50,000 for the study, which is scheduled for a formal presentation today at a luncheon at the Meeting House in Oakland Mills hosted by the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for 150 local social service agencies. Another meeting is scheduled for Nov. 1 to begin planning actions based on the study's information.

Sharon Dawson, deputy director of the county's Department of Citizen Services, said officials realized months ago they need to know more about these kinds of problems to determine how to better include immigrants from the larger society.

"I think this is going to be a good educational tool in Howard County," Dawson said.

The study found that health care is another major issue, said Horizon Foundation President and CEO Richard Krieg.

"A virus is a great equalizer. A virus doesn't know if a child is undocumented, and if that child isn't treated, the virus can spread," he said. The foreign born are an important segment of those in the county who have no health insurance, and so are most at risk for health problems and lack of follow-up care after a hospital stay.

As the foreign-born community gets larger, he said, the majority population needs to be more aware of immigrants and include them in society's mainstream.

Nearly half of Howard's foreign-born people live in Columbia, with anther quarter of the population in Ellicott City, the study said. More than half (54.5 percent) are Asian, with 19 percent from Latin America. Europeans account for 16 percent, and Africans account for another 8 percent.

Viviana Simon, president of Alianza, a Hispanic advocacy group, said the report is important for recognizing what is happening to immigrants.

"It is the acknowledgement that there is a community that is underserved and underrepresented," she said. "Many of the residents of Howard County are in denial."

The report, she said, "at least validates the fact that the community exists." Without Hispanic workers in restaurants, doing landscaping and janitorial work, "I don't know if we could function the same way."

Koreans are the largest single immigrant group in Howard, and Sue Song, president of the Korean-American Community Association of Howard County, said her group already had a pretty good idea of needs and problems. Now, she said, it is time to stop studying and take action.

Elderly Koreans, for example, have the greatest needs in her community because they are often unable to speak English and are isolated in their homes, often caring for young children.

"We want to have at least some kind of bilingual staff in the county Office on Aging," she said.

Availability of English classes and interpreters is a major problem, officials said, and the inability to easily communicate makes it harder to get health care and information vital for jobs.

There is also tension between younger and older generations of some immigrant families, the study said. That can lead to youth alienation. County police and other officials are closely monitoring things to keep youth gangs such as the notorious MS-13 from spreading into Howard from the Washington suburbs, Appletree said.

The mix of cultures and customs can led to friction and misunderstandings, the study found.

For example, eye contact, a staple of American personal interactions, is considered a sign of disrespect in some east Asian cultures, as is kissing or hugging.

Adult education is unheard of in many Latin American countries, so Latino adults in Howard County often don't know they can go to school.

Haitian parents aren't familiar with grade point averages and SAT tests, and many immigrants don't expect contact with their children's teachers. In their home countries, teachers are considered solely in charge of the children's education.

Despite such challenges, 52.3 percent of immigrants who entered the county in the two decades since 1980 have become naturalized American citizens.

But Appletree said the 40 percent who arrived after 1990 have tended to be less educated and poorer than those who came before 1980.

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