School of the American dream

In these Los Angeles adult-ed classrooms, citizenship is the curriculum.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Mr. Huey, who also teaches ESL at Evans, first taught English 25 years ago to garment and restaurant workers in nearby Chinatown. An immigrant himself, he emigrated with his parents from China in 1961.

Watching his parents go through the "fear and anxiety" of their citizenship interviews and experiencing firsthand the challenges of learning English made him deeply sympathetic toward his students. He speaks affectionately of watching them perform "The Star Spangled Banner" - not an easy feat, even for a native speaker.

"They're so cute in their broken English," he says. "They're so proud when they sing."

To help his students with the N-400 Application for Naturalization, which all aspiring citizens must fill out before their interview, Huey provides them with a vocabulary handout. It includes definitions for delicate terms that might stymie or shock a less-prepared person: "habitual drunkard," "Nazi," and "polygamy."

Some of the personal questions that fall under "Affiliations" and "Good Moral Character" range from the obscure to the slightly offensive.

"Unless you've been prepared," says Huey, some of the questions "hit you like lightning." Without advance introduction, he says many of his students wouldn't know where to begin when faced with: "Have you ever been a prostitute or procured anyone for prostitution?"

Huey estimates that 90 percent of his students achieve citizenship. Approximately 76 percent of the students at Evans are Latino and15 percent are Asian. Most of the rest have European or African backgrounds.

Before Monday's boycott, the demonstrations had come up some in Huey's classes. While studying the "100 Questions" one day, his students pointed out that the rights of all people living in the United States, both citizens and noncitizens, are guaranteed under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

But Huey sensed that many of his citizenship students, all legal residents, were too close to reaching their goal of becoming citizens to be swept up in rallies that would keep them away from class. On Monday, however, he says so many students were absent that "the whole school felt deserted."

Ms. Escalante, the most outspoken of Martin's students, is a first-time activist. She explains in the clear English that comes from 16 years of living in the US that she's as surprised as anyone by the momentum that immigrants have built.

"It's a surprise," she says, "because it's never happened in this country before."

Her children are both citizens, but her husband, a painter from Mexico, is not. The House bill that would make undocumented immigrants felons would also make it a felony to house them. Escalante says she fears the impact this measure might have on households like hers.

Her family and friends have also been roused by the cry for immigrant rights. Her son was one of 40,000 southern California students to demonstrate on March 27.

On that day, Escalante was at Evans, in class. She supported her son's decision to protest. But like any mother, she says she wishes he'd told her in advance.

On Monday, she chose to make her presence felt by not attending school or spending money. Instead, Escalante, who is pregnant, spent the day at home looking after 10 children so that her relatives could march down Broadway and Wilshire Blvd., with hundreds of thousands of others.

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