When Guillermo Velazquez left Mexico at age 26 to take an internship at the World Trade Center Pittsburgh, he actually planned to return home. But within a month he was a offered a job by the Trade Center, which valued his international business background and ability to speak four languages. “If my first employer hadn’t given me a work permit, I would have felt excluded,” says Velazquez. “It helped that I felt wanted.” So Velazquez made the Pennsylvania city his home, and went on to excel in a career in which he helps boost trade between the city and foreign industries — a moneymaker for the region. He now also serves as an executive committee board member of the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and as president of the Latin American Cultural Union, the oldest Latino organization in Pittsburgh, with 3,000 members.
I saw many talented, good people who were forced to leave the country, and they never had a chance.
Velazquez supports immigration reform that would help make newcomers feel welcome, so they, too, can go on to make valuable economic contributions to the United States. Instead of setting caps on the number of visas issued annually for each country, as is U.S. policy now, he’d like to see the federal government evaluate each individual applicant’s potential. “Individuals should be vetted by who they are and what they can contribute to society,” he says. “When officials evaluate you, they never see where you live or how you socialize or what community groups you’re involved with. What’s missing in this whole process is the human heart of the people.”
One of Velazquez’s goals is to help immigrants feel accepted in America. While he found the people of Pittsburgh to be welcoming, stereotypes of Mexican immigrants nonetheless persist. “People wouldn’t expect that I speak four languages, or they assume that I don’t have a degree,” says Velazquez. “There’s still such a lack of awareness about immigrants or even about Latin America. People think we’re only from Mexico.”
Velazquez says adjusting to life in Pittsburgh was difficult as first. “It was so much smaller than Mexico City, and it was too cold. There wasn’t any good Mexican food, and it didn’t feel like home,” he says. But he joined local Latin cultural groups and immersed himself in his work, helping local companies do business in Latin America. “Everyone assumed the money was in Europe, but I helped them learn about other markets and opportunities,” says Velazquez. “It felt good to serve as a mediator between two cultures.” Velazquez hopes future immigration reform will adopt a similar win-win approach. “I saw many talented, good people who were forced to leave the country, and they never had a chance,” he says. “The system didn’t value what they could have done.”