From Cashier to HR Manager: How One Immigrant Made It Happen

Global HR

​Esmeralda Baltazar is living her American dream. She is an HR manager for real estate company Atlantic Pacific, where she oversees all HR and talent acquisition functions for more than 500 employees in five states and more than 60 locations.

But it wasn’t easy getting there.

In 2010, Baltazar immigrated from Mexico to Belle Glade, Fla. She didn’t have much money, had no vehicle and could barely speak English. For 10 months, she failed to secure employment despite holding a degree in business administration from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“I’d describe the transition as challenging,” she said. “It was full of surprises, both good and bad.”

Many immigrants have trouble landing jobs, despite their education or experience gained from their countries of origin. Federal data shows college-educated immigrants consistently have higher rates of unemployment than their native-born counterparts who received their degree in the U.S.

Immigrants face myriad barriers to employment and discrimination in the workplace due to preconceived notions held by employers. Baltazar said companies can play a critical role in developing and creating an inclusive environment for these workers.

“A common consensus that I have heard among family, friends and immigrant colleagues is that we are here to make a living,” she said. “We want the opportunity and the support.”

Discrimination Among Immigrants

Baltazar eventually landed a job where she planted sugar cane for an agriculture company. However, she left the job a couple weeks later after narrowly escaping a serious injury falling from a tractor. She then accepted a job as a cashier at a nearby gas station.

The workplace atmosphere at the gas station was at times toxic, Baltazar said. A manager once told her that she’d never amount to anything more than a cashier in her career. Some customers ridiculed her accent and inability to fully understand English.

A few years later, a recruiter abruptly ended a phone conversation with Baltazar during a job interview.

“The recruiter called 30 minutes later and said that the client was no longer interested in my candidacy,” Baltazar said. “I asked him if he could provide feedback, and he hesitated a little and said, ‘Well, it seems that your accent was too heavy.’ “

Immigrants who do secure employment often face discrimination that includes:

  • Xenophobic harassment, including physical and emotional abuse.
  • Rigid work demands.
  • Unsafe working conditions.
  • Substandard wages.
  • Employer wage theft.

Many people have blamed immigrants for taking jobs from native-born workers, but a report by the American Civil Liberties Union indicated that immigrants create new jobs by forming new businesses, spending their incomes on American goods and services, paying taxes, and raising the productivity of U.S. businesses.

In recent years, fewer people harbor hostile opinions of foreign-born individuals. A report by Pew Research Center showed that people in the U.S. increasingly view immigrants as a source of strength (65 percent of respondents), rather than as a burden (26 percent).

Creating Career Paths for Immigrant Workers

Baltazar eventually became an administrative assistant for an agriculture company in Florida. During her one-year evaluation, the organization’s vice president expressed his interest in helping her grow professionally.

“I had a conversation with the VP, and I was transferred to his team,” Baltazar said. “I learned the importance of many HR areas, safety, workers compensation, benefits, leave administration, engagement and culture.”

The knowledge and experience gained helped her land a job as an HR specialist position with another company. She eventually earned an HR certification in 2018 and accepted an HR generalist position with her current employer. In 2020, she became SHRM-certified by earning her SHRM-SCP.

Baltazar said her journey exemplifies the need for employers to take a chance on immigrant workers. She explained that HR workers need to commit to immigrants and their well-being.

“[HR professionals] are the company cupids,” she said. “We are finding the perfect match that will devote their time in corporation to make them successful, but also corporations must invest back.”

Desiree Enyi, a diversity, equity and inclusion expert with analytics company Included.ai in Bothell, Wash., provided tips for organizations to better include immigrants in the workplace:

  • Support federal policies that foster economic mobility for immigrants, and share those efforts with the workforce.
  • Detail the different cultures representing the workplace during the onboarding process.
  • Offer guidance and translation for HR policies and procedures.
  • Foster connections with immigrant employees based on their stated preferences and interests.
  • When possible, offer flexibility and accommodations to immigrant workers as they adjust to new surroundings for day care arrangements, family, housing or other obligations.
  • In a multilingual work environment, remove communication barriers by encouraging employees to learn phrases and idioms in other languages.

“It’s important to offer opportunities for cultural sharing where all employees are encouraged to participate and learn from each other,” Enyi noted. “This inclusive practice supports a sense of belonging.”

Baltazar added that employers must provide career paths for immigrants. To retain employees, it is important to recognize, appreciate and promote them. This will allow foreign-born workers to advance their careers, whether through promotions or continued professional development, and elevate the organization’s productivity.

“Not everyone wants to move up,” she said. “We need to be able to identify that and find other ways to help employees.”

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