Eager immigrants pack schools. Too many aliens, too few English classes hinder amnesty act

For Jos'e Constanza, the road to becoming a permanent resident of the United States leads twice a week to Room 114 at the Evans Community Adult School here, at 2 a.m. There, for most of the night, the gumptious Guatemalan learns basic English and American history as part of an effort to fulfill a long-held dream: becoming a legal resident of the US.

Jos'e and two dozen other nocturnal classmates are part of what may be the largest back-to-school movement in the nation's history.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of former illegal aliens are enrolling in English and civics classes to qualify for permanent residency under the landmark immigration law, which is two years old Sunday.

So many are seeking instruction under the amnesty provision that some immigrants' rights groups worry that the educational system will not be able to accommodate all the aliens, and thus undermine their chance to become residents.

``The whole system is about to be severely tested,'' says Charles Kamasaki of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.

The depth of the challenge facing public and private agencies is mirrored at the Evans School, a concrete and stucco complex near two gas stations and ``Sai-gon Fast Foods'' on the edge of downtown here.

Although the school so far has been able to handle all of the amnesty applicants who have come forward seeking instruction, it has done so largely by adopting what may be the most intense educational schedule in the country - a sort of round-the-clock learning shop.

Besides the day classes and 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. sessions, three special amnesty courses are held twice weekly from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. Another 50 sessions are held on Saturday, and the school is ready to open its doors on Sunday if the amnesty enrollment, now 3,700, goes too high.

``I've already spent all my toilet tissue budget,'' says Harlan Barbanell, the school principal, referring to the logistics of running a 24-hour-a-day school.

The debate over classroom space comes as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 is receiving mixed reviews. Its main goal, to slow illegal immigration across the US-Mexican border by enforcing sanctions on employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens, has had uncertain results.

Arrests of aliens along the 2,000-mile border, usually a gauge of the level of illegal immigration, have been down dramatically in recent months, suggesting that the sanction's provision is working. But some analysts think the numbers are down for different reasons, and argue the border remains as porous as ever.

Progress on the other main component of the law, granting legal status to certain aliens already living here, is similarly debated. While 1.8 million came forward under the first phase of the general amnesty program, making it the largest amnesty program in the world, some immigrants' rights groups worry that many aliens will fall through the cracks seeking permanent residency under the second phase, which begins next week.

Those who survive the first cut of legalization (the Immigration and Naturalization Service hasn't judged all the applications yet) receive temporary registration cards. Eighteen months after this, they have one year to obtain permanent residency, either by passing an INS-administered English language and US civics test or showing they have completed at least 40 hours of a 60-hour course in these areas.

One concern is that many immigrants don't even know there is a second phase. The INS plans several mailings to tell them of the requirements. But ``this population is extremely mobile,'' says Linda Wong of California Tomorrow, an advocacy group.

The biggest concern, however, is classroom space. Most of the 1.5 million-plus applicants who will seek to become permanent residents are expected to go to school instead of take the exam.

While some cities and states will be able to absorb the new pupils, others - most notably California, the nation's main portico for new immigrants - will be squeezed.

A recent study by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials predicted that 80 of the state's top 100 cities will not be able to meet the demand, which could result in 82,000 people not obtaining residency. INS officials consider these figures too high but have calculated that the Los Angeles area could face a shortage of 60,000 seats.

``I think employers are going to have to help us fill in the gap,'' says INS Western regional commissioner Harold Ezell.

Already, 102,000 are enrolled in special amnesty classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Officials there expect no shortages, because of early planning and creative scheduling such as at Evans.

Principal Barbanell began the 24-hour program both to ensure enough seats were available and to accommodate the needs of immigrants. Jos'e Constanza works days as an auto mechanic and in the evening as a busboy.

``This is the best time for me,'' he says of the all-night class.

Jean-jacketed Louis Hernandez, who slipped across the border 13 years ago from Mexico, comes in after cleaning office buildings till 12:30 a.m.

``It's interesting,'' he says of the study of Pilgrims and pronouns, and of the hour the knowledge is dispensed. ``As long as everybody here wants to learn, he can learn no matter what the time.''

``I don't fall asleep. There is a lot of coffee.''

No one does nod off. The class is punctuated by laughter, clapping, and oral recitations of simple English. (Teacher: ``Where did you go last night?'' Class: ``I went to dance at the disco.'')

There is the palpable feeling that more is going on here than mastering a few facts and phrases to meet the requirements of some new law.

As Mercedes Molina, an ebullient Salvadoran, puts it: ``I want to learn more to speak. It is necessary for my job.''

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