English classes bulging with immigrants

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The Evans Community Adult School in downtown Los Angeles is a veritable language factory. It teaches English to more than 7,000 students a day in five shifts, from 7:55 a.m. to 9 p.m. Even so, the school still has to turn away as many as 450 people a month who want to enroll in the courses.

``We have an awful lot of people out there interested in learning to speak English,'' says Sarina Arakawa, the school's assistant principal.

English-as-a-second-language (ESL) classes for adults are bulging in many major cities across the country - a result of the flood of immigrants to the United States, particularly from Asia and Latin America.

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Now educators are bracing for a new wave of applicants as a result of the enactment last November of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

A little-known feature of the measure requires that illegal aliens seeking legal residency must have a ``minimal understanding'' of English before the status will be granted. The requirement is causing fresh concern in the alien community, putting new strains on language resources, and prompting concern among immigrant-rights groups that some aliens may fail to qualify for legal residency because of the shortage of classroom space.

But the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) does not expect such a significant impact.

``I don't think there is any expectation that people will have trouble meeting [the English] requirement,'' says Rick Kenney, a member of the INS staff in Washington.

The INS estimates that some 4 million illegal immigrants will apply for legal status. Agency officials doubt that many of these will need to study English to qualify. With few exceptions, the law offers citizenship only to aliens who have lived continuously in the US since before 1982. It is felt that most will have picked up enough English to pass.

Although the new law provides $1 billion to reimburse states for money spent on social services to implement the measure, most of it is expected to go for things other than English instruction. Even if the number of people needing tutoring is not substantial, say people involved in providing the English classes, any addition to the ESL rolls will further strain the language-instruction system.

``It has always been bad,'' says Linda Wong of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, referring to the demand for English classes. ``What the new law is going to do is make it worse.''

Not surprisingly, the queues for adult English classes are becoming the longest in cities with large immigrant populations. In Los Angeles, with more immigrants than any other US city, officials in the public school system, which handles much of the adult language training in the city, expect to turn away 40,000 people from ESL classes this year. The district is tutoring some 192,000 adults a year. And a recent survey by the state Department of Education showed that 131 out of 228 school districts in California have more ESL students than they can handle.

In Chicago, adult ESL classes offered by community colleges have been growing by 5 to 7 percent a year. Houston is straining to meet demand, and in New York City 8,000 are on the waiting list for ESL classes.

``There are people who are really desperate,'' says an ESL supervisor with the Los Angeles public schools.

To cope with the demand, educators and others are pushing for more state and federal money for language programs.

California education officials project that $21 million will be needed. Three major bills have been introduced in the Legislature to boost ESL spending in the next fiscal year, including one that would raise the amount by $19 million. Analysts expect an increase to be forthcoming, but nowhere near $21 million.

Efforts are under way in Congress to increase federal funding of language training. At the local level, many church, community, and other groups are trying to set up adult English classes for those who cannot get into public programs or afford private tutoring.

But even with all this, educators say, the surge in immigration in the early 1980s is likely to mean that, for years to come, there will be far more prospective pupils than can be admitted to adult English classes.

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