Immigrants support area

Friday June 11, 2010

STOCKBRIDGE -- Foreign-born workers make up a quarter of state workers who are employed in the leisure and tourism industry, according to a report that was released Thursday.

Advocates say the report shows how important the immigrant population is for Berkshire County, where the leisure and hospitality industry is a major employer, and the rest of the state.

Approximately 12,000 immigrants reside in Berkshire County, and make up 25 percent of the region's hospitality workers, according to locally collected data.

Bill Pottle, adult education program director for the South Berkshire Education Collaborative, said those employees are critical to the hotel and dining establishments of the Berkshires, particularly in South County.

"Without immigrants, they wouldn't be able to support what's going on at these restaurants," said Pottle.

The report, which also found entrepreneurial rates among immigrants in the hospitality industry was higher when compared to native-born workers, was produced by The Immigrant Learning Center, a Malden-based nonprofit organization which works to educate immigrants.

The Berkshire Regional Employment Board, and the Berkshire Immigrant Center joined the Immigrant Learning Center in unveiling the report's findings Thursday at the Red Lion Inn.

In a state with a declining population, the influx of immigrants has been essential to the economy stability, the report's proponents said.

"If not for these foreign-born workers, our economy would be much less competitive than it is today," said James Jennings, research leader for the study.

The study, which looked at statistics compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor, federal census data, work force development agencies in New England and other sources, was conducted by researchers from Tufts University, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Worcester State College.

Hillary Greene of the Berkshire Immigrant Center said there is also evidence of strong immigrant entrepreneurship locally, with 41 percent of the storefront businesses on North Street in Pittsfield owned by foreign-born workers.

And though these workers play a critical role in the state's economy, representatives at the forum said, there are challenges they face in being accepted and finding upward mobility.

Those in attendance said more needs to be done in the way of expanded employment and English language training, as well as fundamental immigration reform to resolve legality issues.

"We can't move forward," said Jennifer Lawrence, one of the study's researchers. "We continue to get set back years and years by public policy."

An estimated 20 percent of immigrants in the state are here illegally, according to 2008 estimates by the census.

Particularly concerning is a set of immigration reforms currently being considered by the state Senate, according to Marcia Hohn, The Immigration Learning Center's director of public education.

Hohn, who called immigrants the "backbone of economic growth in the state," pointed to a specific proposal to create a hotline to report on employers potentially hiring illegal immigrants, saying it "smacks of Nazi Germany" with "neighbors turning in neighbors."

To reach Trevor Jones:, or (413) 528-3660.


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