School of the American dream
In these Los Angeles adult-ed classrooms, citizenship is the curriculum.
On a bright spring morning, the low hum of foreign languages fills an asphalt courtyard. Most of the men and women at the round green tables shaded by plastic umbrellas are exchanging their casual greetings in Spanish. But many are here to learn English. In all, more than 90 languages are spoken at Evans Community Adult School, where thousands of adult immigrants are eased into the American mainstream each day.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
For decades, immigrants have turned to this venerable institution with the hope of learning English and becoming citizens or earning their high school equivalency diplomas. They are the people at the heart of what's been called an immigrant civil rights movement. And their presence is especially strong in this city, the nation's second largest, with a "majority minority" population steadily creeping toward a Latino majority.
On March 25, half a million people turned out to protest a bill that would criminalize the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants - and the people who help them. Many were first-time protesters.
Evans was relatively untouched by the early waves of activism. But that changed Monday. On a day of boycotts and demonstrations that reportedly drew more than 600,000 to the streets of Los Angeles, classes normally crowded with dozens of students were empty but for a few seats.
Just steps from downtown, Evans is the largest adult English as a Second Language (ESL) school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In fact, with more than 20,000 students passing through this three-acre campus each year, it may be the largest in the nation. Classes are offered six days a week - often beginning before the sun rises and stretching late into the evening to accommodate work schedules.
Because of space constraints, Kim Martin's citizenship class is held in a lobby of St. Anthony's Croatian Church, down Alpine Street from the main campus. During a recent class, two students stood with an American flag draped between them. They reviewed the stars and stripes: How many there are, and what they represent.
Questions pertaining to the flag account for at least seven of the "100 Questions" - a sample list of civics, history, and government facts that immigrants may be tested on during their citizenship interview.
"Does everyone pass the test?" asks Mr. Martin as the flag bearers returned to their seats.
Without hesitation and with great confidence, Aminta Escalante, a student from El Salvador, replies: "In this class, yes."
Not everyone does pass, however. And Martin reminds his students the most common reason is poor English.
The gauntlet of questions immigrants prepare to answer includes basics like No. 13: Who is the President of the United States today? (George W. Bush) Others would stump many Americans. No. 28, for example: How many voting members are in the House of Representatives?
When asked this question, Martin's class rings out in a chorus of broken English: "Four hundred thirty-five," they answer correctly.
The arc of the actual citizenship interview is largely determined by the Citizenship and Immigration Services employee conducting it.
"Sometimes you run into an interviewer who just goes crazy on you," says Victor Huey, whose citizenship class starts each day at 7:25 a.m. If an applicant's English is good, the interviewer may cut the interview short and pass the person after just six questions. If not, it could last up to 20 questions, he says.