Monica Ruiz said people are often unwilling to give funding to help the Latino community — which can include undocumented immigrants.
“I say it’s easier to find funding for a box of puppies who are left on the street corner to help them than it is to find funding to help undocumented folks,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz — a community organizer at Casa San Jose, a Latino social service agency in Pittsburgh — said Latino youth lack resources to overcome the barriers they face, such as a lack of funding for community programs and the absence of Spanish-speaking or bilingual employees at welfare offices.
In a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Pennsylvania ranked No. 48 out of the 50 states in Latino youth well-being, based on an index score including data about educational attainment and family income, among other factors. According to the study, Latino youth face barriers in education, health and economic development throughout the nation compared to Asian and Pacific Islander and white children.
Jaime Booth, an assistant professor in Pitt’s School of Social Work, said the results of the study didn’t surprise her. Booth received funding from Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems to conduct her own research on Latino youth in a study called Visual Voices, in which Latino youth ages 10 to 16 expressed their feelings about a prompt each day in a piece of artwork.
She said her work reflected the findings of the AECF research and that the youth in the Latino community suffer in various ways.
“I think that when you’re talking about education attainment, living in high-poverty neighborhoods, and you’re talking about living in high-poverty households, and you’re talking about family separation,” Booth said, “I think it is as bad as the numbers say.”
According to the AECF study, only 8 percent of fourth graders from immigrant families were proficient in reading compared to 38 percent of students who are children of U.S.-born citizens. Latinos also have the lowest percentage of school enrollment for children 3 to 5 years old compared to other races and ethnic groups.
Booth said a lack of awareness and attention to the Latino community may be the cause of Pennsylvania’s low ranking. According to Pew Research Center, Pennsylvania had the 13th largest Hispanic population in the nation as of 2014, with 834,000 Hispanic individuals living in Pennsylvania and about 23,000 in Allegheny County.
“I think most people just think that we don’t have a lot of Latinos living here, so it’s not something to be concerned about,” Booth said. “I think the recent influx of immigrants is catching people off guard, and people just aren’t even aware that it’s happening,”
Anita Herrera, a 21-year-old lifelong Pittsburgh resident, said the well-being of the Latino youth in Pennsylvania might be rated so low because most people don’t care to make it better. She said she has seen people act unsympathetic to Latinos who don’t speak fluent English.
“The people who do know English are like, ‘Why are you here if you don’t know English? If you’re in America you need to know English,’” Herrera said.
Bruno Vizcarra, the chair of Pitt’s Hispanic and Latino Professional Association, said the government must adjust to the influx of Latino immigrants in a proactive way. He said schools specifically need to be better equipped with resources, such as improved evaluations for English proficiency and bilingual staff for Latino youth.
“I feel like nowadays it’s almost inexcusable that the government doesn’t have a proper procedure with well-trained staff that can handle the Spanish language and sort of start to interact more with these students,” Vizcarra said.
Language barriers can impact a student’s education, according to Karen Goldman, assistant director of external relations in Pitt’s department of Hispanic languages, but the political climate surrounding immigration and students’ fear of deportation for themselves or their family members can also affect students’ opportunities in education.
“[Latino youth] are quite often themselves in a position where English is an obstacle for them to prepare themselves in terms of testing and in terms of academic preparation,” Goldman said. “If they get into a school where they are also required to fill out a FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] form to access funding, they are often fearful of doing that.”
Although the structural barriers, such as a lack of bilingual support, that prevent Latino youth from upward mobility are a large part of the problem, Booth said other factors impact well-being. She said bullying, fear of deportation and issues of gangs came up in various sessions over the six-week Visual Voices study.
“Trump and the political climate came up every single session and we did not ask about it ever. There was a lot of talk about being bullied at school and they really tied it back to the presidential candidate and then the elected president and things that he had said about Latinos,” Booth said.
Issues such as bullying and gangs are not uncommon in Latino communities, Vizcarra said. He said as a Latino immigrant, he has seen the terrible conditions that many immigrant families live in and that Latino youth often lack role models, but not at the fault of their parents.
“I believe the biggest challenge that Latino youth have, especially for immigrant families, is the fact that when these families arrive, they arrive with pretty much nothing,” Vizcarra said. “In order to start from scratch, you have to work really hard. Mom and Dad get two or three jobs each, which means their kids are very much unattended.”
Although he has some fear about the future for Latino youth because of the Trump administration, Vizcarra said we should get back to a progressive government that supplies better organizations, after-school programs, evaluations and resources for the Latino youth.
“I think the government, small and large, are going to have to adjust because they are going to start seeing these families arriving,” Vizcarra said. “Whether they like it or not, their children are going to be here for a long time — they are the future working generation.”