Englishlearner aid tied to economy
Arizona Republic
Feb. 9, 2006

Missing from the debate over English-language learners is the pivotal role of business.

It's not surprising. Business leaders have an ambitious agenda to seed a biosciences economy, a project that ultimately needs state support, and the last thing they want is to get caught in the middle of this political fight.

While most of these executives are simpatico with the governor, they also know they must build ties with the conservative Republicans that control the Legislature, the most powerful branch of the government.

There's unease that the bitter English-learner fight and its consequences could stymie other initiatives this session, including crucial economic-development measures.

Meanwhile, the national businesses that dominate this branch-office economy demand risk-aversion above all else.

Getting involved in a debate that is a surrogate for general anger over undocumented immigration only will make enemies.

The risks are real. But the fight is already attracting national attention, including a long story in the New York Times, which is sure to tarnish the favorable buzz the state has recently generated.

And the debate is incomplete without an understanding of its economic origins and stakes.

More than 154,000 immigrant children are at the heart of the federal lawsuit compelling Arizona to fund English instruction.

Their parents, far from being merely a drain on public resources, are an essential part of Arizona's low-cost economy, especially in construction, landscaping, restaurants and tourism. Construction often halts here over Christmas as workers return home to Mexico.

So while Anglos may lament how much Greater Phoenix has been destabilized by undocumented immigration - and the changes over 25 years are dramatic - and how much it is not like, say, Des Moines, this was always part of the deal.
The deal of low prices, of being a border state. The deal of globalization and the unprecedented movement of people to find work. The quiet pressure from much of business to maintain an open border.

Mastery of English is a basic for entry into the global economy. Just ask China, which has a mania to teach English.

Arizona's failure, which led to the lawsuit, is not because some pointy-headed liberals wanted the immigrants to keep their culture. It came from long-conservative lawmakers who chronically underfunded public schools.

Sure, it should have been a federal responsibility. But conservatives want to cut the federal budget, too. Either way, Arizona suffers a broad and dangerous achievement gap that is hurting Hispanics.

It will have serious competitive consequences for the entire state.

The last time America absorbed so many low-skilled immigrants, it had an industrial economy that could absorb them and give them a path ahead. That economy is gone.

So all around the world we're witnessing a growing gap between the skilled and unskilled.

So Arizona's dilemma doesn't seem to be unusual. California, for example, has many of the same challenges on a far larger scale. But California enjoys a vast, powerful economy, with Silicon Valley, the entertainment industry, biotech and every global sector imaginable.

That Arizona has nothing comparable shows the state's special vulnerability if it ignores its human capital.

Reach Talton at jon.talton@arizonarepublic.com. Read Talton's daily blog at