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ArlingtonImmigrant-advocacy group mulls future of its mission

Immigrant-advocacy group mulls future of its mission

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With its housing situation finally sorted out, the Shirlington Employment and Education Center (SEEC) is now working to align future programming with the changing needs of its clientele.

“We’re going to respond to whatever the demands are,” executive director Andres Tobar said from the organization’s perch on the fourth floor of the Arlington Mill Community Center, the view looking westward along Columbia Pike.

Long housed in a succession of buildings in Shirlington, SEEC moved into the community-center space on March 1, 2020. Just 15 days later, the Arlington County government closed all its facilities as the COVID crisis rolled in, leaving SEEC effectively homeless.

The organization resumed operations in its new(ish) home this past July, having done what it could in the intervening 17 months to maintain connections to, and support for, those it serves.


Occupying a large room that can accommodate 20 or 25 people in a classroom setting, SEEC is working to ramp up both in-person and “virtual” programs ranging from entrepreneurism to instruction so immigrants can earn a Virginia driver-privilege card or obtain a federal tax ID number. Courses in “green” cleaning techniques also are likely to resume.

The additional space provides the opportunity for volunteers to come in and offer support services, such as tax preparation for SEEC’s clientele. “As the nature of [our] services change, we’ve got to be more interactive,” Tobar said.

SEEC was born in 2000 after more than a decade of a sometimes tumultuous relationship between mostly African-American residents of the Four Mile Run Valley community and the largely Latino day-laborers who began congregating along South Four Mile Run Drive in search of work. With the assistance of the Arlington County government (which continues to provide some funding), the two sides worked out an arrangement to provide designated space for laborers and ensure they did not spill over into residential neighborhoods.

But in recent years, the majority of day-laborers congregating in Shirlington dwindled, and the county government opted to raze the pavilion as part of ongoing renovation of Jennie Dean Park and environs.
SEEC ended up with the last available office space at the modernistic Arlington Mill Community Center. Tobar credited Department of Human Services director Anita Friedman with helping obtain the space.

“Anita has been fabulous,” he said.

While moving more into educational and workshop programming, SEEC is not giving up its roots. Day-laborers can now register with the organization, which will serve as a referral clearinghouse that also aims to ensure both sides in the transaction are satisfied.

Working out of his home for more than a year, Tobar rode out the initial blast of the COVID pandemic by helping laborers through the economic downfall that accompanied it. The organization supported efforts to provide rental assistance and food to its clients, most of whom are from Central America.

The organization’s small staff also worked to encourage the immigrant community to get COVID vaccines.

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