Immigrants make it all work

When Marco Tomakin met his wife-to-be, El Bandalan, she had already signed a contract to become a nu
Marco Tomakin and El Bandalan moved to Albany from the Philippines in 2003 to be nurses at Albany Medical Center. Bandalan continues as a nurse while Tomakin, who studied both law and nursing in the Philippines, is an attorney specializing in immigration
Marco Tomakin and El Bandalan moved to Albany from the Philippines in 2003 to be nurses at Albany Medical Center. Bandalan continues as a nurse while Tomakin, who studied both law and nursing in the Philippines, is an attorney specializing in immigration

When Marco Tomakin met his wife-to-be, El Bandalan, she had already signed a contract to become a nurse at Albany Medical Center.

So he signed one, too.

The couple moved to Albany from the Philippines in 2003. They had both trained in government-run nursing schools in their home country, and the idea of making more money in the U.S. appealed to them.

They weren’t alone.

Since 2002, 341 Filipino nurses have come to work at Albany Medical Center, and there are 250 Filipino nurses now on staff. This hasn’t happened by accident; the hospital has actively recruited nurses from the Philippines. It’s just one of Albany Medical Center’s strategies for dealing with a chronic, nationwide shortage in nurses, according to Greg McGarry, a spokesman for the hospital. “At any given time, we have 60 to 70 open positions,” he said.

Hospitals throughout the country have successfully recruited nurses from the Philippines, which is why Albany Medical Center decided to give it a try, McGarry said. “We were aware that in the Philippines there are a number of well-trained nurses looking for work,” he said. “They’re fluent in English. They assimilate quite readily. Most of them have adjusted well with our homegrown staff.”

Immigrants can be found working in almost every sector of the Capital Region’s labor force. Many of them occupy low-wage, low-skill jobs, but there’s another group of immigrants, one that’s highly educated and well-paid, who are recruited to work here by businesses and schools unable to find enough qualified Americans to fill their work force. Though only 5 percent of the upstate population is foreign born, about 20 percent of the professors in upstate universities are immigrants. In health care, the fastest growing sector of the upstate economy, immigrants make up 35 percent of physicians and surgeons. Immigrants also comprise 20 percent of computer software engineers.

Recruiting scientists

The University at Albany aggressively recruits scientists from overseas.

Lynn Videka, vice president for research at the University at Albany, said building and maintaining a high-caliber science program requires a global perspective. “Science today is an international enterprise,” she said. “No longer is the science of the world being solely produced by the United States.”

Videka said the University at Albany identifies promising scientists based on their work, and then begins the process of recruiting them. “If we’re looking for someone with experience in cancer biology, we’ll look at the top journals and identify people who are doing the best work,” she said. “Sometimes those people are U.S. nationals, and sometimes they’re people [from other countries].”

After Sept. 11, it became tougher to recruit scientist from overseas, Videka said. “The level of scrutiny and restriction is higher,” she said. “The Department of Homeland Security has quite a backlog. It’s harder to recruit faculty and staff because of the restrictions.” As a result, the University at Albany has hired a full-time administrative staff person to help their overseas recruits get the H-1B Visas they need to come to America and work. Sometimes, she said, the scientists also hire private attorneys to help them with this process.

Still, some scientists have opted not to come. Recently the University at Albany wanted to hire a Canadian chemist whose wife was about to have a baby. Unsure whether he would be able to obtain visas for his family, and concerned that travel between the U.S. and Canada was becoming more difficult, he decided to stay in Canada, Videka said.

There’s a shortage of U.S. scientists, Videka said, and so it’s not as if scientists from overseas are displacing Americans. Even without the tougher restrictions, it would still be more difficult to recruit from overseas, as other countries, such as China and India, as well as the European Union, have made major investments in science. China, for instance, has announced that it is creating 200 research universities. “Science is a worldwide economic engine,” Videka said.

Albany Medical Center has also felt the effects of tighter immigration policies. “There’s a real backlog,” McGarry said. As a result, the hospital’s recruitment has slowed; so far, only one nurse has come from the Philippines this year, though staff met with about 60 interested nurses in January. McGarry said Albany Medical Center is waiting to see whether things change under a new presidential administration before it steps up recruiting from the Philippines again.

Overseas recruiting is particularly common in high-tech jobs, such as engineering and biotechnology, said Jonathan Grosso, communications chair for the Capital Region Recruiters’ Network. There’s a shortage of skilled workers throughout the world, but it’s particularly acute in the U.S., he said. “It’s become even more of an issue because the labor market is tighter, and it will become even more of an issue as the baby boomers retire,” he said.

Work is the biggest reason why immigrants come to the Capital Region.

Singh, who owns a gas station near Albany, said he and his family moved from Punjab, India, to the United States when he was 18. Like millions of immigrants, they saw this as the land of opportunity.

“It is a way to better your life, better your education. It really is the land of opportunity,” said Singh, who asked that his full name be withheld. Singh said many people assume he has little education. Yet he earned a business degree at the University at Albany, and was a buyer at General Electric Power Systems. He said his family came to the United States so he could get the best education he could. Six years ago, he became a U.S. citizen. He says he’s assimilated into the culture and considers himself more American than Indian.

Talk to a dozen immigrants and they’ll each have their a unique story of why they came to the U.S.

Juan G. George moved to New York City, where his father’s sisters lived, from the Dominican Republic when he was just 15. Eventually he moved to Albany. Today he lives in Albany, and is the operations manager at the Desmond Hotel.

Debra Cole moved to the United States from Trinidad for a better life. After five years, she earns $12.15 an hour as a nanny.


Several industries in the Capital Region, including horse racing and agriculture, rely on immigrants for seasonal labor. In recent years, these industries are having more trouble finding workers because of federal crackdowns on illegal immigrants. In farming, immigrants with visas and undocumented workers together make up 80 percent of seasonal workers in upstate New York, according to a report by the Fiscal Policy Institute in Latham.

About 8,000 workers are needed to pick the apple crop in New York, and it’s uncertain whether there will be enough workers this year.

“They are crucial to the apple industry,” said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association. “With [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids stepped up, there is no extra available help at this time.” The workers’ biggest crime, Allen said, is that they might not be 100 percent legal. But they are law-abiding, and they work hard. “No Americans want these jobs,” he said. “I can boldly say that. It’s seasonal work from Sept. 1 to Nov. 1. It’s for three months. It’s hard work, and as many hours as they can legally work. It’s difficult work. Not too many want to do it.”

The state Department of Labor wants farmers to consider domestic workers before hiring foreigners, and is trying to facilitate connections between New York farmers and workers in Puerto Rico. If farmers can’t find U.S. citizens to cover their labor needs, they can hire through a federal program, the H-2A Temporary Foreign Worker Program, which allows foreign agricultural visas for seasonal work. To participate in the program, growers have to pay an average rate of $9.80 an hour and are required to pay transportation for workers, round trip, from their home country.

Horse racing

The majority of people who work on the backstretch at Saratoga Race Course are immigrants, said NYRA spokesman John Lee.

“Could we operate without them? No. They are essential to racing at Saratoga,” Lee said, adding that immigration issues are causing a shortage of backstretch workers.

The New York State Racing Association doesn’t employ the backstretch workers; they are employed by the trainers. NYRA gives them credentials, and they must be licensed by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board. There are cases when someone provides false information to a trainer, but the overwhelming majority of the backstretch workers are here legally, Lee said.

The backstretch workers are the grooms, who provide hands-on care of the horses, clean up stalls, carry out used bedding and walk the horses after they’re exercised to cool them down. Most backstretch workers come from Mexico and Central America.

“It’s a heavily Spanish speaking group,” Lee said. “I have been here 17 years. I haven’t seen a big change.”

Luis Gonzalez, 38, has been coming to Saratoga Springs from Santiago, Chile, to work the backstretch for the past six years. He comes, he said, “for opportunity. Everybody comes here for money.” A commercial engineer by training, he said that the glut of engineers in his home country makes it difficult to find work there, and that working the backstretch is more lucrative.

“It’s better money,” Gonzalez said.

The people of Saratoga Springs have been welcoming, Gonzalez said. “The people are nice,” he said. “I don’t think anybody is racist or dangerous.” But he said he has no plans to move to the U.S. permanently, and that his wife, who is pregnant, and 6-year-old daughter still live in Chile. “I love my country,” he said.

This summer Gonzalez is attending English classes at Saratoga Springs United Methodist Church. These classes are sponsored by the Latino Community Advocacy Program at the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council. Many of the students work at the track, but others work in restaurants and other local businesses.

Like Gonzalez, Bandalan’s earnings support family at home; she regularly sends money to her mother in the Philippines. Most of the Filipino nurses do this, Tomakin said.

“We send money home and it has a tremendous impact on the economy,” Tomakin said. “It keeps it afloat.” A nurse in the U.S., he said, earns more than a specialist in the Philippines. “In a private hospital in the Philippines, a nurse can make about $220 a month. At Albany Medical Center, nurses earn $220 a day,” he explained.

“There’s more opportunity here,” Bandalan said.

Tomakin and Bandalan said it’s easy for Filipinos to adjust to life in the U.S. “The Philippines were a colony of the states for so long, that there’s a well-entrenched relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines,” Tomakin said.

Bandalan still works as a nurse at Albany Medical Center. Tomakin, however, is now an immigration attorney with an office in Delmar; the vast majority of his clients are Filipinos. He said he became an attorney in the Philippines after finishing nursing school. “I wanted to do something worthwhile, so in my free time I went to law school,” he recalled. When one of his patients at Albany Medical Center learned of his legal background, the patient, who happened to be an attorney, encouraged Tomakin to take the bar exam and become an attorney in the U.S.

The relationship between doctors and nurses is a little different in the U.S., Bandalan said. “In the Philippines, we looked up to the doctors and we always had to call them doctor,” she said. “Here, the attendings are open to being called by their first names. They want to encourage teamwork.”

Overall, Bandalan and Tomakin are happy here.

“You miss certain foods, certain things,” Tomakin said. “I feel homesick at times. But here it’s a new experience, and I also enjoy it.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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