Immigration reform could overload English classes

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Patricia Nazario/KPCC

The immigration bill up for debate in Congress calls for immigrants to learn English. But budget cuts have cut ESL classes at schools that offer such classes, including Evans Adult School in downtown Los Angeles.

The Senate’s immigration reform bill has a requirement that visa applicants learn English. Advocates for immigrants are concerned it could strain a system that was just subjected to deep budget cuts. 

And if the Senate’s immigration reform bill actually makes it into law, ESL classes are likely to see demand increase dramatically.

That’s because the reform, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., would  require them to demonstrate basic proficiency in English.

Fewer ESL classes at Evans School

Back in 1986, President Ronald Reagan put in place an amnesty program for undocumented immigrants. It also required English proficiency.

“During the amnesty years classes used to start here at 5:45 in the morning,” says Bernadine Gonzales, the director of the Evans Community School in downtown L.A. “There were full day ESL on Saturday and half-day on Sunday. That doesn’t exist any more” 

Gonzales says ESL classes have been cut back drastically because of the budget cuts put in place last year by Governor Brown. Schools like Evans—which caters largely to an immigrant community with limited economic means—have been hit particularly hard.

“Last school year, this school served approximately 15,000 students,” said Gonzales. “This year, it’ll probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of about five.”

There are other options available for those who want to learn English—like private classes—but they can be prohibitively expensive.

"Can't imagine how we're going to meet that demand"

The immigration reform bill does include some grants to states for funding ESL programs, but the amounts stipulated don’t come anywhere near what’s needed to make up for local shortfalls.

And here in California, where Asian Americans now make up a substantial number of immigrants, the challenges go beyond beyond budgets.

Joyce Noche works on the Immigration and Citizenship project at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. She says they’ve had to double the number of classes for Korean speakers. Throw in Tagalog speakers, Mandarin speakers, and Noche says it’s hard to find bilingual teachers, places for them to teach and the funds to pay for all this. They are just stretched too thin.

“We can’t make it based on what we have right now,” she says. “I can’t imagine—with 11 million people,—how we’re going to meet that demand.”

If  the bill passes there’s likely to be a rush to ESL classes. But without considerable budget increases, educators say it'll be a challenge to meet demand.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is debating the immigration reform bill this week. The hearing will continue tomorrow.

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