Reaching Out to Immigrants One By One

Integrating foreign-born newcomers can be difficult, but a mentoring program in Littleton is finding success in an individualized approach.Jan Masters, a former schoolteacher, and Juan de la Torre, a restaurant worker originally from Guadalajara, probably never would have crossed paths were it not for an innovative program in Littleton that pairs immigrants studying for the oral citizenship exam with established residents who help them prepare.

The program is part of the Littleton Immigrant Integration Initiative, made possible by a grant from The Colorado Trust, a private foundation that funds community health projects across the state.

The trust’s “Supporting Immigrant and Refugee Families Initiative” has so far awarded grants to 19 communities across the state, including Littleton and Greeley. The city and a group of partners initially get a $10,000 planning grant and can then apply for the full funding of $75,000 per year for four years.

Littleton began receiving funding from The Colorado Trust in 2005 and is roughly half-way through the period of the grant. But community and immigrant integration requires an ongoing commitment that must continue long after the grant money is gone, said Susan Thornton, former Littleton mayor and chair of the city’s integration initiative.

Between 1980 and 2000, Littleton saw the number of foreign-born residents climb from roughly 3 percent to more than 13 percent of the total population. Thornton says there are challenges associated with an influx of newcomers – community tensions, overburdened schools – but immigrants also contribute in very positive ways with their work ethic and strong family values. Integrating newcomers may help a community avoid the bitterness and polarization that so often materializes in the wake of rapid demographic change.

“They are here, more are coming and they aren’t going away,” Thornton said. “If we don’t reach out and try to welcome them we will be a divided community and that brings a lot more problems.”

Littleton has used the grant money to set up an information center at the public library where staffers answers questions on public transportation, employment, healthcare, citizenship and more. Funding has also been used for English classes and cultural competency training for volunteers and health care providers.

But the mentoring program that brought Masters and De la Torre together has perhaps been the most successful of Littleton’s efforts to integrate foreign-born newcomers into the community.

“This is something that has really rallied a lot of people,” Thornton said. “The exciting thing about it is that people work one-on-one and they really get to know each other and they start to learn about each other’s cultures.”

Masters and De la Torre began studying together in March in anticipation of his citizenship interview this past November. Masters thinks the reason the tutoring program works is because the individual attention not only helps students prepare, but also breaks down some of the barriers that keep immigrants and native-born residents from interacting.

“I think some of the illegal immigration stuff is dealt with in abstract terms – it’s like us and them,” she said. “But if you work with someone one-on-one you see them as a real person. It gives you an understanding of the situation they are in and maybe a greater understanding of what your ancestors sacrificed so we can enjoy all the things we enjoy.”

Although De la Torre, 31, has been in the United States since 1993, he says his relationship with Masters has made him feel more comfortable in a culture that still sometimes feels very foreign. He has to go for a second interview in January to retake the writing portion of the test and turn in a couple of documents, but he says with Masters’ help, he’ll do fine.

“I used to feel embarrassed to ask questions in class, that’s why I waited so long to do my (citizenship) application,” De la Torre said. “But Jan’s attitude makes me feel very comfortable, and I can ask her anything. She is a really special person, and she has helped me a lot.”