Many immigrants at mercy of translators
Associated Press
April 22, 2006

LYNN, Mass. (AP) -- For Lidia Veras and Elena Clarisa Sepulveda, the pace of life is achingly slow, weighed down by confusion and delay.

Unable to speak or read English, the two immigrants and beauty salon co-workers from the Dominican Republic are at the mercy of friends to translate for them. When friends cannot help, doctors' appointments are skipped and mail goes unread, leaving the pair unsure what their banks, insurance companies or children's teachers are asking them to do.

Amid the national immigration debate, Congress has considered stronger incentives for immigrants to take English classes, including money and the potential for accelerated citizenship. But these women say they don't need an extra incentive; they need a desk. They are on a years-long, 400-person waiting list to get into a free, government-supported class at a community program called "Operation Bootstrap."

"It's a little like when a baby wants food and there's isn't any: She cries," says Sepulveda, speaking through a translator at Operation Bootstrap's office in this working-class city north of Boston.

Says program director Don Edwards: "I've got hundreds more of them. They get desperate. They start calling and begging. It really hurts your heart."

The Senate language incentives bill failed, but Congress is under pressure to reconsider broad-based immigration reform. That could draw more attention to the patchwork system of public programs, private companies and less-formal groups - often churches - that teach adult ESL ("English as a Second Language") courses.

New incentives could also increase demand at a time many experts feel the system is already overburdened.

"We will be unprepared," says Fermin Recarte, assistant director for Latino community outreach at Ivy Tech, a community college in Lafayette, Ind. "We won't have the teaching, we won't have the buildings, we won't have anything."

In fact, there are openings for ESL students, even in places with large immigrant populations. Community colleges like Texas Southmost and Queensborough in New York City say they can meet demand from fee-paying students. And there are private companies that will help employers teach their workers how to speak English.

But in many places, slots in free programs like Operation Bootstrap are scarce. Massachusetts has about 17,000 people on waiting lists statewide. Other states, including Texas, don't keep waiting lists but report that overall demand for free programs is huge. In 2003, the three largest programs in the Houston area had a combined waiting list of 12,000, said Federico Salas, assistant state director of Texas Learns, the state office of adult education.

"We can't accommodate most of them," he said. "We can't accommodate even a majority of them."

Nationwide, about 1.1 million people were enrolled in state-administered ESL programs in 2004. The U.S. Department of Education, in a yet-to-be-published study, estimates 28 percent of adult education programs (home to many ESL courses) had waiting lists in 2001-2002. Preliminary results from a new survey by an adult education group show about two-thirds reporting waiting lists.

Cheryl Keenan, director of the division adult education and literacy at the Department of Education, says federal programs are serving more students, and accountability is improving completion rates. Though she worries about recruiting ESL teachers and growing numbers of immigrants illiterate even in their native languages, she sees progress. And she notes language training is increasingly being incorporated into classes other than ESL, such as vocational courses.

But advocates note federal Adult Basic Education spending has actually declined slightly in recent years, and say more resources are needed. There are big variations among states, which account for about three-quarters of the adult education spending. For instance, for each of its residents who reported speaking English poorly or not at all on the 2000 census, Michigan spends about $190 on adult education, while Nevada spends less than $5.

With millions struggling to speak English nationwide, some wonder why the lists aren't longer.

At Operation Bootstrap in Lynn, Edwards says many people don't sign up because word gets out the wait is hopeless. In Indiana, a state official says there's no statewide capacity problem, but Recarte, of Ivy Tech, says community colleges don't offer Spanish-speakers the kind of instruction they need, so few sign up - and then few classes are offered.

Other immigrants may be getting instructed by church and community groups, though experts wonder about the varying quality of that instruction.

Still others might be able to get by at work and home without English. But in Lynn, Sepulveda and Veras say they have no doubt English is essential for their careers, their children and their own happiness. Sepulveda tried to take carpentry training and says she did fine, but could not get work because of the language barrier.

Veras would like to take care of the elderly, but so far they have only been able to work in the beauty shop. Everyone speaks Spanish there.


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