Immigrants jam English classes
The Arizona Republic
Jul. 26, 2005

Adults wait in line as lawmakers push for official language

Daniel González

As momentum grows to make English the official language in Arizona and across the country, immigrants are having a hard time getting into English classes.

At adult education programs throughout the state, the demand for English classes is so great that immigrants often wait months, and sometimes more than a year and a half, to get in. The long waits hurt immigrants' ability to get jobs and help their children in school.

Still, the state Legislature has tried to cut funding for adult education in recent years but pushed to declare English the official language of Arizona to encourage immigrants to learn it.

"People are not dumb. They understand that in order to improve (in this country) you have to speak English," said Luis Enriquez, director of adult education and workforce development at Friendly House.

This summer, 283 people are enrolled in eight English classes at the Phoenix non-profit organization, Enriquez said. An additional 213 people are on a waiting list to get in.

Next month, when the school year begins, the agency will add 13 more English classes at five school districts around the Valley, enough to serve an additional 2,600 people.

Six hundred people are studying English this summer through classes offered by the Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County. About 100 more people are on a waiting list.

Demand for English classes is even higher during the rest of the year, said Margaret Quintana, the agency's learning center director. At times, the agency has had as many as 500 people waiting to get into an English class, Quintana said.

"It's easy to live your life in Arizona in Spanish, but to really succeed you need English," Quintana said. Most immigrants understand that, she said.

Statewide, there are 36 adult education programs offering English classes.

A 2004 study by the Arizona Department of Education found that 5,009 adults were on a waiting list to get into English classes and that an additional 5,686 were turned away. Statewide, about 18,000 adults who wanted to learn English enrolled in classes through adult education programs.

The study identified 445,000 adults, without high school diplomas, who didn't speak English very well, the target population for English classes.

"One of my goals has been to reduce the waiting lists," state schools Superintendent Tom Horne said. "If people are desirous of learning English, they should start right away. They shouldn't have to wait. It hampers people in the job market, and (it) hampers their ability to help their children in school."

Horne said that for two years in a row he fought off efforts by the Legislature to reduce the $3 million the state spends on English and adult literacy classes. The state also receives about $9 million from the federal government to pay for English classes, he said.

Next year, he plans to ask for more money to fund English classes and for authorization to charge fees.

One recent morning, 21 immigrants - 19 women and two men - sat in a classroom at Friendly House near downtown Phoenix finishing an English exam to measure how much they had improved over the past three months. The immigrants were from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Cuba. They spend three hours a day learning English, Monday through Thursday. The classes are free.

Many said they had lived in the United States for years and only now were getting around to learning English.

"When they first come, it's survival, feeding their families. Once they have some stability, they say, 'OK, now I have some time to learn English,' " said Enriquez, the adult education director.

Phoenix resident Olga Torres, 68, an immigrant from Mexico, said she waited for two months until she got into an English class in September.

Despite living in the United States for 35 years, she never learned English very well. But it wasn't for a lack of desire.

"My husband died in 1976. I had five children. I had to work to support them, and I didn't have time to go to school," Torres said.

She said she was trying to learn English now so she could communicate better with her grandchildren.

Glendale resident Juana Vazquez, 35, an immigrant from Cuba, began taking English classes three months ago. She juggles the classes between work and raising a family. Vazquez, who owns a housekeeping franchise, is at her job by 4 a.m. After rushing home to feed her two children, ages 12 and 6, she is at class by 9 a.m. When class ends at noon, she goes home for a few hours and then is back at work until 10 or 10:30 p.m.

She hopes learning English will lead to a job that pays better.

"If you come here, you need to learn English because this is not our country," Vazquez said.

Phoenix resident Jorge Noriega, 24, who was born in Texas but grew up in Mexico, also hopes learning English will help him find a better job. He enrolled in an English class at the end of June. He already speaks English well, but now he is trying to learn how to read and write better. After the English class is finished, he stays for a two-hour class to help him get his high school equivalency diploma.

"I want to improve myself," Noriega said. "If you don't know English, then you miss out on opportunities."

A bill is pending in Congress to make English the official language of the United States. U.S. Reps. J.D. Hayworth and Trent Franks, both Arizona Republicans, are among the 126 co-sponsors.

Twenty-seven states already have made English the official language, said Rob Toonkel, director of communications and research for U.S. English Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based organization that promotes making English the nation's official language.

Some state lawmakers also are pushing to make English the official language in Arizona. The Legislature passed an official-English bill earlier this year that would have banned the translation of government documents into languages other than English, except those needed for international trade, tourism and to protect the public's health and safety.

Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed the bill, saying she agreed non-English speakers should be encouraged to learn English, but the bill included no money to help them do that.

Toonkel said one of the goals of making English the official language is to generate more funding for English classes.

"It's our hope that these types of bills go together, that once you make English the official language, you also give immigrants the opportunity to learn English," Toonkel said.

But Raul Gonzalez, legislative director for the National Council of La Raza, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, said making English the official language isn't necessary.

"It's a specious argument," Gonzalez said. "It's based on the argument that what's stopping people from learning English is because we don't have English as the official language. . . . There are insufficient resources for people to learn English. That's the problem."