The New Face of Delaware
Immigrants have changed the state and its workforce. The state, therefore, has welcomed them with open arms.
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Cemal Idil was a fiber optic engineer in his hometown of Samsun City, Turkey. One day in June 2001, he took his father for a walk in the middle of his family’s hazelnut field and told him he would soon leave for the United States.
The economic infrastructure of Turkey was crumbling. The closings of banks and factories and the rise of unemployment were a call for Idil to carve a new future. A friend who had recently immigrated to Delaware convinced Idil to join him.
“My father told me that I must go,” Idil says. “He said, ‘You can learn the language in America. You can learn everything there. You can do everything there.’”
After the U.S. Embassy approved his visa, Idil started working at a construction company here. He also worked for a while at a Turkish restaurant in Wilmington, then applied his 16 years of engineering experience at an electric company in 2004 where, soon after he began, he suffered an on-the-job injury that prevented him from working.
“My doctors told me that I could only perform light duty, and said that if I were ever able to apply my skills in America, I would have to do it through communicating.”
So Idil has, for the past four years, attended classes at the University of Delaware’s English Language Institute. With students from Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Germany, Sweden and Russia, Idil learns a language and a culture that has become for millions of new Americans the equivalent of pure gold.
A new face of immigration has replaced those seen on newsreels of men on ships waving derby caps at the Statue of Liberty. The once huddled masses are now educated men and women and their children. The thousands who have come to Delaware have been welcomed with guidance, education and economic opportunity.
“Whatever the reasons that bring immigrants to the United States, their adjustment to a new country is so often slow and painful, and their identities are undergoing a major life change,” says ELI associate director Debra Ditzel. “They need to know that people here care about them. Once they know that, they will be able to connect back to themselves, gain confidence and find their voice, in a new language.”
According to United States Immigration Support, 9 percent of Delaware’s population of 864,000—about 66,000 Delawareans—is made up of immigrants or the children of immigrants, and our foreign-born population doubled during the 1990s.
Nearly 70 percent of Delaware’s immigrants are part of the local workforce. Of those workers, about 90 percent are private wage or salary workers. About 40 percent work in managerial or professional jobs, and more than a fifth of them work in education or health care.
The successful immersion of Delaware’s foreign-born can be traced to federal and state laws merging with educational opportunity. Delaware is one of the biggest beneficiaries of The Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which established a national workforce preparation and employment system that provides immigrants with federally funded classes in English.
“The English language is money today, not only for immigrants living in the United States, but for people who remain in their native countries,” says Walt Babich, an instructor at ELI. “Being able to speak the English language well can make the difference between having a good job and a bad job. It is also the international language in business and general communication.”
ELI has an enrollment of more than 1,800—many of them students at the University of Delaware, several hundred of them adults who have emigrated and are applying for U.S. citizenship.
“One out of every five Delaware families speaks another language in their home and, eventually, it will be one in four,” says ELI director Scott Stevens. “This is where the United States is going. America has never ceased to remain a place of opportunity, and the expansion of our programs to more and more immigrants allows us to be a part of that.”
The ELI also reaches out to another foreign group: the spouses of visiting scholars and graduate students at the university, many of whom remained sheltered in off-campus apartments while their husbands or wives furthered their careers. As a result, the university began underwriting ELI tuition for spouses.
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