Hispanic/Latino immigrants to the US often find themselves locked into jobs well below their talents, even when they have proficiency in English. Discrimination may be one reason, but it's usually not the only one. Psychologists who have extensive experience with these issues say that immigrants need to recognize factors in their own thinking and behavior that may be holding them back.
Is It Whom You Know or What You Can Do?
According to Dr. Emma Matos, a bilingual family therapist originally from Venezuela who now practices in Brooklyn, one of those factors for many professionals is the myth Hispanics/Latinos tend to learn before they arrive: That the US is a meritocracy where whom you know is not as important as what you know and what you can do. Because of this misconception, immigrant job seekers who do not land jobs may interpret this as a personal rejection of their skills and experience, when the problem may just be that they lack the right kinds of contacts. Many immigrants are uncomfortable with networking, because they think of it negatively as amiguismo or cronyism. Immigrants may not be aware that a social network doesn't have to be built on exchanging favors. In the US, especially in a tight job market, it is important to know who has what opportunities, and building a social network is vital for anyone looking to better his economic position.
Migration Stress Adds to Job Stress
Migration is extremely unsettling, both because of the strangeness of the new setting and because of practical problems large and small, points out Argentinean-born psychologist Dr. Marta Aizenman, director of psychological services at Cook College at Rutgers University in New Jersey. The small ones build into major frustrations when you no longer have the old friends, colleagues and acquaintances to call on to tell you how to do things, or to help with a job referral, babysitting or getting your car fixed.
While migration is stressful for the person who comes with, or soon acquires, a job or a school fellowship, it tends to be harder yet for an accompanying spouse or other family member. The partner is isolated with no one to talk to in the strange environment, while the working partner is out in the world. Tensions at home then put further stress on the jobholder or job seeker.
When satisfying job opportunities fail to appear, newcomers either blame themselves or get angry at the society for excluding them. The frustrations add to the many other stresses of immigration. The effects on one's self-esteem can lead to angry outbursts against loved ones, self-destructive behavior and paralyzing depression.
Asking for Help
A common belief among some immigrants is that tension and depression -- perfectly ordinary consequences of migration and economic stress -- are moral weaknesses that must be hidden rather than confronted. "It's very common for immigrants to refuse to acknowledge psychological problems until they turn into physical ailments and they have to rush to the emergency room," says Matos. "The ER physician then treats the physical problem but never gets to the underlying cause of the stress."
Immigrants need to realize that their frustrations are not unusual and are not primarily their fault, emphasizes Matos. Building a new social network to replace the one that had grown naturally in the home country and offered social, psychological and career support, requires a campaign that takes time, effort and even courage. A person may have to work to become more assertive and overcome timidity in the face of unfamiliar customs and language.
To get help, check the public health service agencies in your area.