Juan says he has been unemployed for eight months. He is a U.S. citizen, but because he speaks with a strong Spanish accent, he believes employers assume he is an illegal immigrant.
"I deserve the right to work like anyone else, and how I look or sound should have nothing to do with getting a job I'm qualified for. Can you understand that?" he asks.
Juan is actually an actor, and his lament is the heart of a 60-second radio spot that is being heard all over Maryland as part of a new advertising campaign.
The $99,000 campaign aims to educate employers, workers and the public that it is unlawful to discriminate against people because they look or sound foreign.
"The message is to hire based on ability, not on national origin," said Martin J. Ford, who coordinated the federally funded campaign for the Maryland Office for New Americans, a state agency that aids refugees and other immigrants.
When a 1986 federal law established penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, Mr. Ford said, it also raised the possibility that employers would try to avoid the sanctions by shunning apparently foreign applicants.
But the law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of citizenship or national origin. Employers may believe, as one ad says, that they are "damned if they do and damned if they don't."
Hence, the ad campaign, which has the slogan "Fair Hiring: It Works in Any Language" and was produced by Noble Steed & Associates, a Lutherville firm.
Employers in the Baltimore-Washington corridor are indeed confused about discrimination in hiring, according to a survey commissioned by Noble Steed of 407 employers who hire entry-level workers.
Two-thirds of the employers said they make foreign-born applicants fill out the federal I-9 form that proves they may work in the U.S. before offering them a job.
That is illegal. The employer should first proffer the job, then screen the applicant.
Nearly one-fourth of the employers said they simply didn't offer jobs to people they believed might be illegal immigrants. That is also illegal.
In an effort to stem such law-breaking, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce offers seminars for employers on how to interview and hire. Some tips: Don't ask the applicant where he or she comes from. Don't ask whether the applicant is a citizen.
But nearly 90 percent of Maryland's 127,000 employers have fewer than 20 workers, says Chris Costello, the chamber's vice president for human resources, and small businesses are less likely to be well-versed in immigration law than large employers.
"No doubt mistakes are made," he said. "These people are essentially running a business out of their hip pocket. They simply aren't trained as personnel administrators."
The U.S. General Accounting Office has found "widespread discrimination" in hiring. Nearly one-fifth of U.S. employers discriminated in their zeal to avoid penalties for hiring illegal aliens, a 1990 GAO survey found.
The GAO also sent a pair of applicants with matching qualifications -- one Hispanic and one non-Hispanic white (Anglo) -- to seek the same jobs in two cities. The Anglos got 52 percent more job offers while the Hispanics were three times as likely to receive poor treatment.
Gustavo Torres, director of CASA of Maryland, a nonprofit Takoma Park agency that helps Latin American immigrants find work, says bosses often request workers with "green cards," the document issued to permanent resident aliens.
Mr. Torres, a Colombian immigrant, was asked for his green card before being hired two years ago by a small Washington painting firm.
That is illegal. Applicants may offer several documents to prove they are authorized to work in the United States. Many Salvadorans, for example, lack green cards but may work legally under State Department "temporary protective status."
The Maryland advertising campaign comes at a time when Americans are troubled about the influx of immigrants to the United States. (Nearly 150,000 immigrants moved to Maryland during the 1980s.)
Almost three-fourths of Americans favor strict immigration limits, according to a recent Time/CNN poll. While two-thirds of Americans believe that recent immigrants are hard-working, nearly as many say immigrants take jobs away from Americans.
A survey of Central Maryland workers done for Noble Steed produced similar results. A majority believed that immigrants work hard and deserve equal opportunity, but they also favored limits on immigration and preference in hiring for U.S. citizens.
"This [campaign] is not about how much immigration there should be," said Jeff Hankin, a Noble Steed account executive. "We need to deal with the people who are already here, and not deny them legal access to work if they have a right to it.
"There is a larger issue here than complying with the I-9 form, and the larger issue is how we live together in the community," Mr. Hankin said.
The anti-discrimination ad campaign includes one TV commercial, three radio spots, four print ads and a brochure for employers. It urges employers and workers to contact the Office of Special Counsel in the U.S. Justice Department if they are unsure of the law.
The "Fair Hiring" campaign is scheduled to run through next year as public-service announcements in Maryland. Some ads may be translated into other languages for the state's ethnic media.
Here are fair-hiring guidelines from the Maryland Office for New Americans:
* All applicants should complete an I-9 (Employment Eligibility Verification) form and show work-authorization documents only after they are offered the job, not before.
* Applicants may decide which of 17 possible identity and work papers, such as a Social Security card, to show as proof of work authorization.
* Employers should accept any document that looks genuine. Immigration law doesn't require businesses to be document detectives.
* All qualified applicants should be treated equally, regardless of national origin or citizenship status.
Information: Office of Special Counsel in the U.S. Justice Department, (800) 255-7688.