English classes for immigrants fall short of demand
August 18, 2007
Mexican immigrant Olivia Moreno has lived in the United States for 14 years, but
she still doesn't speak English well enough to communicate with her two
"They speak to me in English, and I answer them in Spanish," said Moreno, who is
in the country legally. Moreno illustrates a major challenge facing Arizona and
the rest of the country. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, make up a large and
growing share of the population, but the amount of resources being invested to
help them learn English is far from adequate, experts say.
Without the skills to communicate proficiently in English, the nation's soaring
foreign-born population is at risk of not fully integrating into society. And
that could hurt the nation's economy. "(English acquisition) makes them more
productive. It pays for itself over time," said Michael Fix, vice president of
the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
The nonpartisan organization issued a report this month that found that spending
on English instruction for immigrants falls far short of demand.
The report estimated that $200 million more should be spent on English
instruction each year for the next six years to help legal immigrants gain
enough English proficiency to pass the citizenship exam.
Learning English leads to higher earnings, which boosts tax revenues and lowers
welfare usage, Fix said. It also helps immigrants communicate with teachers,
health-care providers and landlords and is crucial to passing the U.S.
citizenship exam, which opens the door to voting in elections and full
participation in the community.
If illegal immigrants were factored into spending for English classes, as
required under the legalization considered and rejected by the U.S. Senate this
summer, it would add $2.9 billion to the annual estimated cost of instruction.
That is on top of the $1 billion state and federal governments already spend
annually on English as a Second Language instruction for adult immigrants.
The need is particularly acute in Arizona, where the foreign-born population is
soaring but access to English classes for immigrants is shrinking.
The state's foreign-born population grew nearly 30 percent from 2000 to 2005.
The nearly 845,000 legal and illegal immigrants in Arizona represent
14.5 percent of the state's population. Only seven other states have higher
shares of immigrants. About 12.5 percent of the nation's population is
foreign-born, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
As the state's immigrant population has grown, so has the demand for English
classes. More than 14,500 people enrolled in English classes during fiscal
2005-06, the most recent period for which data is available.
But adult immigrants, legal and illegal, are finding that it is becoming
increasingly hard to get into one of the government-funded classes offered
throughout the state. Most classes have a waiting list to get in, some as long
as two years. As of June, the total number of people waiting to get into an
English class was 4,382, according to the state Department of Education.
Under Proposition 300, an anti-illegal-immigration ballot initiative passed by
voters in November, undocumented immigrants are now barred from participating in
government-funded English classes. During the first six months of this year,
nearly 12,000 people applied for adult-education programs, including English
classes. Of those, 1,403, or 12 percent, were denied instruction because they
could not prove they were in the country legally, according to the Education
What's more, the Education Department this year shifted funding from English
classes to help pay for more adult-education programs for dropouts. That
decision, however, was based on a federally mandated survey that showed that the
need for adult-education classes for dropouts in Arizona was higher than for
people with limited English skills, state Tom Horne, state superintendent of
The state spends about $14 million on adult education. About $9.5 million comes
from the federal government. In the past, about 60 percent of that money went to
English-language acquisition classes. This year, that will be reduced to about
"This is the result of federal guidelines and not a decision that the state
Department of Education made," Horne said.
Horne said he asked the state Legislature this year for $2 million more to
eliminate the waiting list for English classes, but the request was denied.
The Legislature, however, did pass a bill that will allow government-funded
English programs to charge fees to people who can afford them. The money will be
used to reduce waiting periods. The fees could start in January.
Meanwhile, growing numbers of immigrants such as Moreno are seeking alternatives
to learn English. She enrolled this month in Inglés Perfecto, a new English
school that opened Aug. 1.
The school on Camelback Road near 19th Avenue is one of a growing number of
English-language schools that have opened in the Valley to meet demand.
There are at least four other English-language schools on Camelback.
"I want our community to learn English so they can participate fully in this
society," said Irisdea Hawkins, president of Inglés Perfecto.
Students attend a three-hour English-immersion class twice a week. A 10-month
program costs $2,000, which comes out to $50 a week. The private school doesn't
care about immigration status.
But Hawkins acknowledged that many immigrants can't afford the school's tuition.
"A lot of immigrants don't make much money, but they want to learn English,"
Moreno, a legal permanent resident who works as a mortgage broker, said she
enrolled in the class to improve her English skills so she can pass the
citizenship exam in four months.
Susy Martinez, 41, another student in the school, said immigrants such as her
often lack the confidence to learn English out of fear of pronouncing words
wrong or making mistakes. The large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants in the
Valley, along with a proliferation of Spanish TV and radio stations, makes it
easy to speak only Spanish, she said.
Martinez, a native of Agua Prieta, Sonora, has lived in the United States for 22
years and has been citizen since 1994.
But the beauty-shop owner said she still can't communicate comfortably with some
of her English-speaking clients.
That's why she decided to enroll in the new school.
"I know my English needs to get better," she said. "I want to feel fully like an
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