Louisiana: Immigrants strive to embrace English as the national

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Jun 17 13:33:50 UTC 2006

Immigrants living in area strive to embrace English as the national

June 16, 2006

By Terry L. Jones
terryjones at gannett.com

The simple communication skills it takes to lead an average American life
can be a task larger than life for some immigrants living in the area who
may soon be forced to recognize English as their national language if U.S.
lawmakers, and President Bush, have their say. On May 25, in a 62-36 vote,
the U.S. Senate approved an amendment of the Comprehensive Immigration
Reform Bill that would declare English as the national language -- a move
that has national immigration law officials perturbed, and local "There's
a misconception that immigrants in this country don't want to learn
English," said Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy for the National
Immigration Law Center.

"For (the government) to think that immigrants devalue English is not true
because they are at a disadvantage," Bernstein said. Local people enrolled
in English as a second language classes at the Bossier Learning Center
agree. Nestled between the 600 blocks of Ogilvie and Coleman streets along
Monroe, the center's ESL teachers and program director are trying to mold
area immigrants into the Americans of tomorrow. "We run about 200 students
a year here," said Jerry Allen, director of the Adult Education Program.
"Some voluntary, some the courts send here."

Allen said the center has three different levels of ESL classes and
students' placement is decided upon by their level of understanding of
English. ESL instructor Barbara Jackson said most of her students,
including those court-appointed, are eager to learn. "They make grave
sacrifices to be here," she said. A fact that Traci Hong, director of the
immigration program for the Asian American Justice Center, feels makes the
government's recent legislative actions against immigrants unnecessary.
"It's not going to make people learn English any faster," Hong said about
the amendment.

"There are many things we can do to make people learn English, but the
in-house amendment is not the way to go." According to the National
Immigration Law Center's Web site, the English as the national language
amendment would disentitle U.S. immigrants to services and materials in
any other language -- another factor that Bernstein stated to be
problematic with the proposal. "There are times when the government needs
to communicate to people in their language," Bernstein said, giving
reference to an American citizen's responsibility to pay yearly federal
income taxes.

"If you only provide them (tax forms) in English, you risk people not
being able to pay their taxes," he said. "You can't pretend that everyone
speaks English." Another provision of the amendment states if there are
discrepancies between forms provided in English and another language, only
the English version would govern. Hong fears the provisions stated in the
amendment could be potentially harmful to immigrants in Louisiana parishes
should another natural disaster, like Hurricane Katrina, blow ashore along
the Gulf Coast. "If there is a potential epidemic, I want everyone to know
what he or she needs to do in whatever language required," she said.
"Isn't it important for the Vietnamese population in Shreveport to receive
help in whatever language they understand?"

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, has publicly declared the Immigration
Reform Bill to be a racist piece of legislation. Feelings Hong, an
immigrant herself who didn't know English when she first came to the
United States, doesn't agree with. "I don't think it's racism," she said.
"(It's) more of a fundamental misunderstanding. It's plainly incorrect
that immigrants don't want to learn English." Hong and Bernstein both
agree the government seems to ignore the extreme measures some go through
to learn the native language. Both made allusions to the difficulties
immigrants trying to learn English as their second language have to face
while trying to hold down multiple jobs to support their families.

"They are putting forth their best efforts," Jackson said of her students
at the Bossier Learning Center. "You have to realize how strenuous it is
for them to live in both worlds." Jackson, who admitted to having a
majority of male students in her classes, said many of her students often
trickle into her class tardy in their work-soiled clothes. "Because of
their cultures, their women are more homebodies," Jackson said. One
student, 25-year-old Julian Hernandez, finds it hard to communicate with
people, even his 2-year-old daughter who was born on American soil and in
learning to speak in English.

Hernandez, a native of Mexico who moved to the area from New Mexico less
than a year ago, is a court-appointed ESL student who was stopped by a
local police officer and forced to learn English because his lack of
understanding during interrogation for a simple traffic violation. "I
think it's good so I can learn," Hernandez said, showing no ill feelings
toward the court's decision. Hernandez also said he understands the push
to declare English as the national language by lawmakers and President
Bush. "I understand that he (Bush) needs people to speak English," he
said.  "Wherever you go in the U.S., you need to speak the language."


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