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Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County evolving

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By Todd Cohen

SILER CITY, N.C. — In 2006, Hispanic Liaison of Chatham County helped five local Hispanic residents fill out applications for U.S. passports.

Recently, in the face of mounting hostility aimed at immigrants and stepped-up enforcement of immigration law that has included more raids on Hispanic immigrants’ homes, the nonprofit agency has been helping roughly five Hispanics a week fill out passport applications for their children born in the U.S.

As the local Hispanic population continues to grow and the needs of Hispanic immigrants change, the services offered by Hispanic Liaison also have evolved.

Founded in 1995 and operating with an annual budget of $319,000 and a staff of three employees working full-time and two working part-time, the agency serves roughly 5,000 individuals a year with a broad range of services, says Ilana Dubester, a co-founder and interim executive director.

Those services still include providing information and assistance to help Hispanics make the transition to the U.S. and understand how basic services and systems like banking and criminal justice work, she says.

“Part of our role is helping people understand and access systems in the U.S.,” she says.

But as those systems have changed, often because of advances in technology and rising market demand from a growing population of immigrants, Dubester says, Hispanic Liaison has adapted itself to address its clients’ changing needs.

When it first begin providing services, for example, most of its clients did not have phones, cars or driver licenses, she says, so the agency delivered most of its services on visits to clients’ homes.

And utility companies that provide telephone service and electric power often did not employ people who were bilingual, so much of the agency’s work involved helping clients communicate with those companies.

Now, as more immigrants own phones and cars, and as more companies employ bilingual staff, Hispanic Liaison is focusing more on helping clients better understand and navigate the workings of their newly adopted home.

Chatham County is home to roughly 20,000 Hispanic residents, or an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of the county’s overall population, Dubester says.

Siler City alone is home to roughly 5,000 Hispanics, or roughly half the population of the city and its’ planning jurisdiction, she says.

The buying power of Latinos in the county totaled nearly $111 million in 2004, according to a study by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC-Chapel Hill.

With 1.4 percent absolute growth in its Hispanic population from 1999 to 2004, Chatham had the seventh-fastest-growing Hispanic population among North Carolina’s 100 counties, the study says.

And Hispanic students represented 19 percent of overall enrollment in the county’s schools, fifth-highest in the state.

To better address Hispanics’ changing needs, Hispanic Liaison, as www.evhnc.org is adding new services and staff, including a new executive director to be hired in 2008.

With a $50,000 grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission, for example, the agency will hire a full-time youth director to coordinate a new program, in partnership with local law-enforcement agencies, that will focus on youth at-risk of engaging in gang activities.

The agency several years ago also launched a new program that offers a free tax clinic at which volunteers trained by the IRS help low-income families fill out their tax returns.

And, in partnership with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle in Raleigh, another new program this year has provided fresh and boxed foods twice a month to a total of 300 adults and 200 children.

A growing number of Hispanics are turning to the agency for assistance in obtaining loans to start businesses and buy homes and, more recently, in applying for U.S. passports for their U.S. born children, or dual-citizenship in their native country for those children.

Many Hispanics want to return to their native countries because of the escalating anti-immigrant climate in the U.S., says Marcia Espinola, associate director at Hispanic Liaison.

But if the parents take them to their native countries or are arrested in the U.S., the immigrants’ U.S.-born children would not be able to return to the U.S. without a U.S. passport or, without dual citizenship, receive the benefits of citizenship in their parents’ native country.

“They’re trying to get things ready,” Espinola says.

To better improve mutual understanding and communication involving Hispanics and their new neighbors, Hispanic Liaison sponsored a “community dialog across borders” in November that attracted 200 people.

“The idea was to have factual information about immigration and immigrants,” says Dubester, “and an opportunity to hear what is going on in the community now.”

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