By Tonya Jameson
Millie Aguilar didn’t know what she was going to do when her husband left her. A native of Peru, she was relatively new to Charlotte, and they’d started a construction company together. She was lost, but not hopeless.
“Sometimes, people don’t realize how much they can do or how big they can become,” said Aguilar, who owns Red Rooster Contractors. “If you continue and continue to fight the battle every day, you realize that you can do huge things.”
Aguilar is doing huge things. She has contracts with the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and other organizations. Since about 2010, Aguilar grew her business from primarily being hired as subcontractors to becoming the primary contractor on projects. She is one of the many success stories among Charlotte immigrants.
She, like many other immigrants, has found Charlotte to be the land of opportunity. More than 15 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born, and that group owns 16 percent of the businesses in the Charlotte region. The Latino population is the largest demographic, but the Asian population, which includes all of the Asian nations, is growing the fastest, said Johnelle M. Causwell, citizen diplomacy program director at International House.
People come to Charlotte for various reasons. Some, like Aguilar, are looking for better work opportunities. Others are escaping political persecution and sometimes ethnic cleansing. Regardless of the reason, these populations of immigrants and refugees add to make up Charlotte’s changing cultural landscape.
“People don’t recognize how diverse the city is,” said Causwell. “There are many different pockets of immigrants, of people from all over the world.”
The two largest demographics tend to move toward different occupational fields. The growing number of Asian immigrants often land jobs in technology, financial and science sectors, she said. The Hispanic population tends to have more undocumented residents, who work in labor-intensive jobs, but they are still an economic force, Causwell said.
“They have a lot of economic power,” she said.
A common theme among Charlotte’s immigration experts is that Charlotte is a welcoming city to immigrants. There is an immigration iIntegration task force that works to maximize immigrants’ economic and civic contributions to Charlotte.
“We’re more open and public with the large immigration population that is here in Charlotte,” Causwell said.
Part of that population includes refugees and asylum seekers who are often overlooked. The Carolina Refugee Resettlement Agency (CRRA) provides resettlement services to refugees and asylum seekers who are escaping violence, persecution and repression in their home countries. CRRA obtains and furnishes apartments and stocks them with food for newly arriving refugees. It assists the new arrivals in registering their children for school, obtaining Social Security cards and registering the adults to attend classes for English as a Second Language (ESL). The organization also helps refugees find employment.
Most come from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Somalia, Central America, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“There’s people coming in from many different parts of the world at different moments in time,” said Martha Hirsch, executive director of the CRRA.
Right now, people are coming from Congo, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Iraq, she said. Anywhere that has been in the news as a war-torn place where people are being persecuted is where people tend to flee from.
“There are thousands of people that were refugees that now make their home in Charlotte,” Hirsch said. “Charlotte has been a welcoming community for almost 25 years.”
Despite surviving life-threatening circumstances, once the refugees are settled here, they often hit the ground running round. Like the non-refugee immigrant population, refugees are also part of Charlotte’s economic engine.
“When people come here, they find safety and they take off,” Hirsch said. “They learn English, their children are in school, their children will go off to college. There are success stories in all of the communities. It’s quite phenomenal, the level of fortitude that people have.”
Immigrant populations are spread throughout the city, but Central Avenue is known for its large Hispanic population. The university area has a large Asian and Caribbean population. Refugees tend to live off Independence Boulevard near Idlewild Road.
Although Charlotte may be a welcoming city, the federal government has put a chilling effect on the atmosphere here, experts say. Recent immigration raids make people afraid to leave their homes, go to the transportation center or hospitals, attend church or send their children to school. The situation is so dire that parents are securing attorneys to have a contingency plan for their children if the parents are deported.
Aguilar hears about the impact of the raids from her workers, and Causwell hears about it from clients at the center.
“It’s terrible. It’s an absolute blight on our community,” Causwell said. “What was once an inclusive community. We’ve now been reduced to fear.”
This impacts the entire immigrant community, experts say — friends, families, neighbors and coworkers.
“This is not what this country is about,” Causwell added. “This country is about opportunity.”
Opportunity is what brought Aguilar to Charlotte in 2009. She and her family moved here from Pennsylvania in hopes of being successful in the construction industry. However, the recession was just hitting and the construction industry was slowing down. Then her husband split, but Aguilar never gave up. She named her company Red Rooster, and began knocking on doors to get contracts.
“We, as immigrants, we always think United States is the land of big opportunities, and it is true,” she said. “Many people don’t realize in the United States, they know, but they are unaware of how much opportunity there is here. We have no real opportunities in our countries.”
Safety nets such as child support enforcement, minority certifications for businesses and food stamps don’t exist in Peru, she said.
The City of Charlotte has programs to get immigrants involved and certified in different professions. Professional organizations such as the Latin American Chamber of Commerce and Latin American Coalition also provide a bridge to the larger community.
“The people that come here to the United States, they have the mentality to do better and be better,” Aguilar said. “I have a huge responsibility. I’m Hispanic. I want them to see us differently.”