Thursday, April 03, 2008

Queens immigrants join city march for rights

By Jeremy Walsh

If New York City is regarded by many as a city of immigrants, Queens is a borough of immigrants, many of whom marched last week in Manhattan in the March for Immigrant New York.

More than 70 immigrant rights groups came out from the five boroughs to call for improved access to housing services, school improvements, immigrant services funding and health care access. Queens, whose population was 48.5 percent foreign-born in a 2006 U.S. Census survey, was represented by New Immigrant Community Empowerment from Jackson Heights, Queens Community House in Forest Hills and the Haitian American Unity Project, which has an office in Cambria Heights.

Shouting "Si, se puede" (Yes, we can) and other chants, the crowd of between 1,000 and 1,500 marched from Battery Park up to City Hall.

NICE Deputy Director Valeria Treves said 13 people involved with her group came out to march.

"There's been a lot of rhetoric about helping immigrant students, and we want to make sure something backs that up," she said.

According to the New York Immigration Coalition, which organized the rally, one in seven children in city schools is an English language learner. The group wants $500 million in education funding restored, including $15 million for teachers of English as a second language.

Chung Wha Hong, the coalition's executive director, hailed Mayor Michael Bloomberg for promising more resources to help these students last year, but said he and the Education Department are trying to ignore those promises.

"The mayor and City Council can do better," she said.

At least one Queens high school student took the podium to demand school improvements.

"We care about education," said Daniel Torreo, a student at Flushing International High School. "Our message to the mayor is keep the promises."

For Jackson Heights resident Matias Calihua, a Mexican immigrant who works on construction jobs, getting funding for English classes is crucial.

"We need to learn to speak English so we can get better jobs," he said, through an interpreter, of the day laborers on Roosevelt Avenue. "I know people who have been on Roosevelt for nine years. Many of them can't progress because they can't speak English."

One in four adult New Yorkers is not proficient in English, according to the immigration coalition,

Some construction bosses take advantage of the language gap to deny day laborers a decent wage, Calihua said. "Some offer us a lot less than we're worth."

Borough elected officials also came out to show their support.

"I, too, am a child of immigrants," said City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), whose parents came from the Caribbean nation of Jamaica. "If you're working in the city and you're paying taxes, you should have equal rights and protection," he said.

City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) emphasized the importance of English language classes. As a child, he said, he had to translate for his Taiwanese parents once he learned the language.

"How many people here want to learn English?" he asked to loud cheers.

City Comptroller William Thompson said 40 percent of the city's population are first-generation immigrants.

"They play an important part in making New York City strong," he said.

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