ECONOMY: In Silver Spring, immigrant looks for work, struggles without health insurance

Special to Capital News Service

Blanca Oliva, 61 years old, laughed remembering the first time she saw snow. It was 1988 and she had recently arrived in Silver Spring, after fleeing her native El Salvador during the country’s civil war. She had found a job cleaning a store at nights.

“I went to clean the store in a snowstorm,” she said. “Imagine … the first snow I’ve ever seen! I had to walk in the snow. I only had sneakers, and I lost one in the snow.”

Oliva arrived in the U.S. with her daughter after a harrowing trip overland through Central America and Mexico, including 23 days lost in the desert along the Mexico-Texas border. She could not swim, so she crossed the Rio Grande in a makeshift raft made of a large tire.

She worked various temporary cleaning jobs before finding a permanent one in 1990 cleaning in a large apartment complex. She had no benefits or health insurance and she only got one week of vacation per year. Still, she was happy to have the job. She had a work permit at the time and obtained permanent residency in 2001.

Last June 23, Oliva was laid off and has been out of work since. She started receiving unemployment benefits in July but does not know when they will run out. She gets $680 every two weeks — about $450 less per month than what she had been making — but she considers herself lucky.

“Thank God I make almost the same as I did with my job,” she said.

She worries because her husband works in construction and his company is beginning to lay off workers.

Oliva cannot afford health insurance and can rarely afford to see a doctor for her chronic illnesses: hypertension, asthma, diabetes, gastritis. She rolled up her sleeve to show a large rash on her arm. A doctor at the clinic had told her to see a dermatologist, but she cannot afford it. Though she has been employed almost continuously since coming here more than 20 years ago, Oliva has only had health insurance for one short period, when an employer provided it.

An estimated 49 million Americans were uninsured as of 2010, and 76 percent came from working families, according to a Kaiser Commission report. Oliva is too poor to buy her own insurance, yet not poor enough to be covered by a government safety net.

She looks for work constantly, but she faces several barriers. She does not know how to use the Internet, so she walks the streets of Silver Spring and Langley Park, looking for job openings. She is older and thinks this makes her less appealing to employers, as they always ask her age in interviews, she said. She speaks poor English and had only six formal years of schooling in El Salvador.

The odds are stacked against her: while the national unemployment rate in 2010 was 8.2 percent, the rate for Latinos was 10.8; for Latinos without a high school diploma such as Oliva, the unemployment rate was more than 13 percent.

Since she lost her job she has limited her spending. She and her husband never go out to eat and have not taken a vacation in over three years, even to the beach. She used to send money to her son in El Salvador but can no longer afford it.

They are unable to save money and she is concerned about their mortgage. They are only able to make payments on the interest. Since 2006 she said the house has lost half its value.

Oliva is an optimist at heart. “Us poor, we are always in battle with suffering,” she said. In spite of all this, and all the struggles she has had since fleeing El Salvador, she considers herself fortunate. “I believe there are many people with more problems than us,” she said. “There are people without anything.