Concurrent with a national trend beginning in the 1970s, Arlington, Virginia, began to experience a significant influx of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America. These new residents, clustered in low-income housing complexes, were becoming entrenched in environments defined by social isolation and economic disadvantage. The gap between American urban life and the languages, cultural practices and skills of these recent immigrants rapidly became apparent to local policy-makers. Rather than watching the cycle of poverty envelope this population, the county initiated Bilingual Outreach.
Bilingual Outreach is an on-site education and support center where well-established immigrants serve as outreach workers and mentors to recent immigrants. The population served by the program has traditionally been ignored by government policy and left on the periphery of the economy due to their lack of English language skills and their difficulty adjusting to life in the United States. Bilingual Outreach functions as a constructive antidote to the economic and social forces that often inhibit an immigrant's ability to achieve a smooth transition into American society.
Bilingual Outreach is located in five low-income housing complexes throughout Arlington. In each center, volunteers and outreach staff counsel, advise, and educate residents about their relationships to landlords, their responsibilities as tenants, their eligibility for government services, as well as new life-skills such as shopping at an American grocery store and using an air-conditioner. Basic English classes, childcare, teen groups, nutrition instruction, and employment training are also central elements of Bilingual Outreach. All of these services, as well as written and electronic material, are offered in the five native languages spoken by residents. Outreach staff and volunteers also link new immigrants and with other available human services, such as public assistance.
Bilingual Outreach is a program which draws on the valuable existing skills of the community by creating channels of communication and mentoring relationships between recent immigrants and Americans who have successfully made the transition from alienation to incorporation. The exchange of personal experience and information, coupled with the curriculum provided by the program offer recent immigrants many critical assimilation tools.
A variety of actors combine their skills and support to make Bilingual Outreach such a comprehensive, non-stigmatizing, and empowering program. Each unit is comprised of six outreach staff members, several volunteers, and a resident advisory board that offers program input and communicates the changing needs of the population. Non-immigrant community members and property holders are also stakeholders, and have separate advising councils to the unit director. Through a relatively low investment, Arlington County avoids greater cost to government for services such as policing, sanitation, housing, resident disruption, community disharmony, and loss of affordable housing, while the program provides high value to the recipients and surrounding neighborhood. Seeing the improvement in conditions, landlords have become significant supporters of the program, donating space and requesting Outreach sites at more buildings.
The services offered by Bilingual Outreach have supported thousands of people's entrance into mainstream American society. The program is designed to bypass some common barriers that low-income people face in their attempts to obtain services. The site-based characteristic of Bilingual Outreach illustrates its acknowledgement of the specific challenges that people in the immigrant community may encounter, such as gaining access to transportation and need for childcare. Bilingual Outreach gives recent immigrants the opportunity to leverage knowledge imparted to them by peers, which is extremely empowering. Bilingual Outreach facilitates a positive entrance into American society and economy, benefiting recent immigrants as individuals, as well as their new communities.