Alien Law Puts Strain On English Classes

WASHINGTON—Many illegal aliens seeking legal residency under the new immigration law are unaware that they must gain a “minimal understanding” of English, and the requirement is severely straining already overburdened language programs, education and immigrant rights officials say.

Public school officials in several cities with large immigrant populations — including Los Angeles and New York — say that their English-language programs are underfunded and beset with long waiting lists. The officials say that the programs will be unable to accommodate the expected flow of immigrants who seek legal resident status under the landmark law.

‘Onslaught of New Applicants’

“We cannot respond to them,” said Gabriel Cortina, assistant superintendent for adult and occupational education for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “A great onslaught of new applicants will have to wait.” He said that his system has 192,000 adult students studying English as a second language and at least 40,000 on waiting lists.

Angel Gonzalez, assistant superintendent for multilingual services in the Houston school system, said that the 17,000 students already studying English as a second language there “are putting a strain on us” and have focused needed attention on a chronic problem.

The fact that many immigrants do not know of the requirement aggravates the problem, immigrant activists say. “Everybody is taken by surprise when I tell them it’s required,” said Linda Wong of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Moreover, many people have complained that the federal proficiency tests in English are not standardized and therefore are difficult to prepare for. Currently, various INS offices are using different criteria for language skills.

Sees Requirement as Obstacle

The English requirement itself is controversial. James J. Lyons, legislative counsel for the National Assn. for Bilingual Education, called it “a tremendous obstacle” to achieving legal status for many and said that it destroys “a dream that was held out” to illegal immigrants.

The immigration measure, signed into law on Nov. 6, offers legal status to illegal immigrants who have lived continuously in the United States, except for brief absences, since before Jan. 1, 1982. Also eligible are farm workers who worked at least 90 days during the year ending last May.

Starting next May 5, INS will begin taking applications in a two-step process that can lead to citizenship. The law says that before anyone can be granted legal status he must demonstrate a “minimal understanding of ordinary English and a knowledge and understanding of the history and government of the United States” or show that he is “satisfactorily pursuing a course of study” in these areas.

High Percentage Expected

INS estimates that 100,000 agricultural workers and 3.9 million other illegal immigrants will apply for legal status. It is not known how many of these people will need to study English to qualify, but activists fear that the number will be substantial.

In the Coachella Valley of California alone, 85% of the estimated 10,000 illegal immigrants — including Middle Easterners, Mexicans and Central Americans — will need tutoring, said Ventura M. Gutierrez, regional coordinator for the nonprofit One Stop Immigration and Education Center.

Anticipating the increased demand for English classes, officials in schools and rights groups have launched educational campaigns to coordinate a response to the new law, and they are lobbying their state legislatures and the federal government for increased funding to programs that teach English to immigrants.

Many Calls on Funds

The immigration law will provide $1 billion to reimburse states for money they spend on social services to implement the law, but the money must cover a wide range of services. And these “impact-assistance grants” will not start until fiscal year 1988, which begins Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, many immigrants are trying to sign up for courses that are unavailable, said Lori S. Orum, director of the innovative education project at La Raza, a Latino rights organization. She said that people have telephoned La Raza, with a “great deal of concern, and, in some cases, hysteria” because they cannot enroll in the programs.

“I cannot envision that (the immigration law) would be enacted without additional money” for English studies, said Helen R. Weinberg, director of the office of adult and continuing education in New York City public schools.

Option of Private Courses

For most of the illegal immigrants, private courses are not an option, activists say, because they are too expensive. For example, at Berlitz Language Centers, a language course costs from $350 to $5,000, depending on the number and intensity of classes, said John Bennett, district director for several East Coast states.

At the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Richard Norton, associate commissioner for examinations, said that the agency is taking a series of steps to “minimize the impact” of the English requirement.

He said the agency is compiling “a fairly long list” of voluntary agencies that will be authorized to teach English.

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