by Paula M. Riley
When Chestnut Hill resident Peter Gonzales talks about his new role as president and CEO of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians (www.welcomingcenter.org), he speaks of everyone except himself. His are the stories of immigrants to the Philadelphia region who are small business owners and workers contributing to the region’s economy.
He tells of the Albanian doctor that obtained a medical degree in Italy and visited the Welcoming Center shortly after arriving in the U.S. The center’s Employment Services Office helped get him a job in his professional field. They connected him with a CNA (Certified Nurse Aide) training program, and he has been working in a nursing home while preparing to take his board exams.
“It is not a simple process to start practicing medicine in a new country,” Gonzales said. “It takes time to evaluate a foreign diploma, get work licenses, learn culture, improve English, learn professional terminology, and for him, take the boards – day by day he gets closer to his dream.”
The Welcoming Center assists many highly skilled workers – accountants, teachers, engineers – as they struggle to transfer their professional credentials to the United States. Like other employment assistance organizations, the center offers career mapping, career counseling, skills workshops, and networking opportunities.
Other job seekers receive computer training, English classes, and assistance learning about American business culture.
“For many of our clients, America starts at this office,” Gonzales said as he tells of a man from Mauritania, who opened a food store in West Philadelphia and attended the center’s “English for Entrepreneurs” course. Its greatest benefit was teaching the cultural practices of this country. He now understands the importance of eye contact and shaking hands with customers. As a result, he has seen an increase in sales and has built stronger social connection with his customers and neighbors.
Last year, the Welcoming Center helped 367 individuals get placed in jobs. Many of them will return to the center for assistance in getting their next job, generally at a higher level with greater challenge. Sixty-to-seventy percent of the work-authorized clients that come to the Welcoming Center for job placement are placed at the over 160 employers in the region.
“Ultimately, we are all about economic development,” Gonzales said. He explains that by connecting these new Americans with economic opportunities, they become more integrated into their communities and, in time, more civically engaged.
Gonzales is a Temple Law Graduate and Immigration Attorney. Recognized as a Pennsylvania Super Lawyers Magazine Rising Star in 2008 and 2011, he founded Gonzales Tiagha, Attorneys at Law in 2009. Previous to entering private practice, Gonzales directed Project H.O.M.E.’s community economic development program and worked at the City of Philadelphia Law Department, where he assisted the City Solicitor as a member of the Executive Management Team.
His most recent community work involved a three-year appointment to the Philadelphia Zoning Board of Adjustment. It was in this capacity that he witnessed many immigrants struggle in their efforts to start a new business.
“They came in front of the board unprepared and unfamiliar with the licensing and zoning procedures” he said. “The center works to reduce these types of barriers that prevent immigrants from opening a business.”
Since its inception in 2003, the center has served more than 9,000 men and women from 140 countries around the world and placed more than 1,400 legally work-authorized immigrants in jobs. In 2011, the center focused its small business work on Philadelphia’s commercial corridors, specifically 52nd Street (135), Washington Avenue (97), Woodland Avenue (63), and Lancaster Avenue (54).
Gonzales, who calls his work “really exciting,” is focused on raising awareness of the economic impact that immigrants can have on the local and regional economy.
“I joined the board of the Welcoming Center in 2011 and knew I was ‘home’,” Gonzales said. “My current roles takes all my skills and experiences and give me the opportunity to work one on one every day to help immigrants to be fully integrated, become successful entrepreneurs, to support their families, and become community leaders.”
Gonzales’ legal training is an asset in his new job. The Welcoming Center provides free monthly legal clinics (and translation services) where clients receive private consultations with immigration lawyers and referrals to legal-aid organizations.
These clinics cover immigration issues and specialty clinics held throughout the year address real estate, small business, and family law topics. Last year alone, 80 hours were donated by area lawyers who were assisting immigrants from Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Liberia, Mali and Ecuador.
The future is bright at the Welcoming Center. Over 140 individuals were placed in jobs during the first quarter of this year. Gonzales looks forward to enhancing existing programs, supporting more immigrant entrepreneurs and spreading the stories of the Center’s clients. “We want to show that our immigrants are real assets to the community,” he said.