“Immigrants Will Learn English” — Don’t Bet On It

Published on September 7th, 2010

CAPS Senior Writing FellowIn her recent interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano touted comprehensive immigration reform, then immediately denied that such legislation would represent amnesty. Defending her position Napolitano said: “It’s – it’s earning citizenship – citizenship should be earned. It should be something that you earn by getting right with the law, learning English, making sure you pay your taxes, staying free or not having any criminal record.” Napolitano’s duplicity is the standard statement intended to mislead by suggesting that illegal immigrants will assimilate, become solid citizens and learn English. Few will learn. I should know. In 1986 when Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act passed, I was an adult English as a second language instructor at the Lodi Adult School in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Under IRCA, illegal immigrants had a three month window to quality for a green card. The INS directed students to class with a document that required them to spend 40 hours getting English language instruction. At the end of that period, if they could demonstrate “conversational skills” and a basic understanding of U.S. civics, I would sign their form. No one can master a foreign language in 40 hours. To make the immigrants’ task more challenging, students came irregularly. One or two missed sessions meant that they quickly fell behind. At the end of 40 hours, the overwhelming majority could not conduct the lowest level conversation. Questions like “How long have you lived in the U.S.?” or “Who is George Washington?” drew blank stares. When I suggested to my struggling pupils that they stay in class longer, they complained—probably to a local Hispanic advocacy group who in turn called the INS. Soon, the INS called me to insist that I sign after the minimum 40 hours regardless of how poorly the students spoke English or how little civics they knew. In the students’ defense, there were reasons why they didn’t learn. Most had little education in Mexico. They led tough lives—their car broke down, the kids got sick, one spouse found employment so the other had to baby sit. With dedication, however, those obstacles could have been overcome. But no one made outside effort. The immigrants didn’t speak English at home with their school age children or watch English language television programming. They had little incentive. The school district, county and state agencies sent out forms in multiple languages. Why bother learning? During my twenty-five years of experience as an adult ESL instructor I repeatedly tried to make two important points. First, most my students, typically in their early-30s, would live more years in the U.S. than they did in their native country. Second, in America English is essential to a fulfilling life. Today, I worry that if comprehensive immigration reform legislation passes, the “immigrants will learn English” requirement will be more watered down that it was twenty-five years ago. I envision something like “immigrants must enroll in English language classes” which would be more in keeping with the philosophy of liberal Democratic Congress. The problem is that enrolling means nothing whatsoever in terms of learning. Most adult education classes are free and offer open admission. A student only has to show up to fill out an application. He’ll get a copy of his registration which he can use as proof that he’s enrolled. Based on my experience, students would probably never show up. Whenever anyone from President Barack Obama’s administration says that “immigrants will learn English,” they should be challenged about how precisely that will happen. Learning cannot be mandated. The federal government is in no position to oversee the immigrants’ English language learning curve. Unless comprehensive immigration reform advocates can wave a wand, only a small handful of amnestied immigrants will end up speaking English. Joe Guzzardi has written editorial columns—mostly about immigration and related social issues – since 1990. He is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) and his columns have frequently been syndicated in various U.S. newspapers and websites. He can be reached at [email protected].

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