Over the last several years New York State has helped lead the way in creating innovative programs to bring immigrants into the mainstream. One public servant has been a key guide to state government in its work with immigrants.
Deputy Secretary of State Jorge Montalvo grew up the child of Ecuadoran immigrants in the Bronx. “Even though my parents were from the same part of Ecuador, they met here in New York, a true immigrant story.” His father worked a blue collar job in the Garment District and his mother was a domestic worker. “My parents were not able to get an education in their own country, so they made sure that I got a good one here,” he recalls. His mother required that he did all of his homework and that he joined every extracurricular activity that he could. “They wanted us to feel like we could fit into any place we were, and so they made us joiners,” he says proudly.
One thing his parents could not give him was a sense of what would happen when he finished high school. “I had literally never heard of college from my family, I found out about it when I was a 10th grader,” he says wistfully.
College became an option for the young son of immigrants when he won a scholarship sponsored by the NBA. “Not only did I get scholarship money, but the NBA fixed up my high school gym and even held a rap concert there,” the now “cool kid” remembers.
At the end of his junior year, Jorge went to a STEM summer program at Cornell where he did research that got his name onto a scientific study. He had always done well in math and science and this summer program helped him go to study chemistry at Dartmouth. After graduation Jorge worked as a chemist, but while doing some work with AIDs patients he decided to change to a career in public service. He had loved doing volunteer work throughout his youth, saying “I just thought it was part of what I was supposed to do,” and he wanted to do something that gave him a sense of mission.
He entered city government during the Bloomberg administration and then went to Albany to work on consumer protection. When legendary activist Cesar Perales became the Secretary of State, Jorge was named the first head of the new state Office for New Americans (ONA). Jorge remembers he and Secretary Perales pitching the idea for the office to Gov. Cuomo along the parade route of the Puerto Rican Day parade. ONA has become the focal point of state efforts to integrate immigrants into New York’s society. Through organizations like CARECEN, ONA helps immigrants apply for citizenship, learn English, and get assistance starting small businesses. As immigrants become fully part of local communities, barriers break down.
Jorge acknowledges that “this has been a nasty year for how some Americans talk about immigrants,” but he says we have many more people “with open hearts and open minds.” He points to the many immigrants emerging as leaders in New York States and says that the divisive voices will start to fade as the “brighter future brought by immigrants” comes to fruition in New York.
Jorge will be honored by Long Islanders on December 1 at the CARECEN Gala in Westbury.