Immigration Reform and Bilingual Education Policy-A Dangerous Combination

by multilingualmania on October 2, 2010

in Anti-Bilingualism, Bilingual Education, Bilingual Politics, Immigration, Language Policy

Chicago Immigration Protest May 1, 2006

In April of 2010, the passage of the scandalous Arizona Senate Bill 1070 resurrected the immigration reform debate, once again placing bilingual education and national identity in the spotlight. Obama, cognizant of the pull Hispanic voters had in the 2008 election, reacted with disapproval, stating that the Arizona law would “undermine the basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.” Yet, nearly half a year later, it is clear that his administration has no actual plan to address reform in 2010. Instead, it looks like immigration and bilingual education will be key issues framing the upcoming mid-term election debates.

Democrats and Republicans alike have tried and failed to overhaul the broken immigration system for several presidential terms. For nearly four years, the Bush administration attempted, half-heartedly, to gain bipartisan support for reforms that would establish a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Yet, his lackluster efforts merely left behind a legacy of exclusion and xenophobia; his most “successful” policies included No Child Left Behind (killing the Bilingual Education Act and, with it, hundreds of bilingual education programs) and the construction of 700 miles of border fences.

Despite paying lip service to his Hispanic constituents, it doesn’t look like Obama is trying any harder than his much-ridiculed predecessor. Although he reaffirmed his commitment to pursuing immigration reform in a videotaped message at the March for Immigration rally in Washington this Spring, in actuality, the over-promising President has pursued an aggressive anti-immigrant strategy that is not so unlike that of the previous conservative administration. Congress’ current reform discussion seems to focus on enhancing border security, cracking down on undocumented workers, and limiting future access to blue collar workers.

So, how does today’s debate affect bilingual education? The controversy in Arizona revived the decades-old discussion on American identity and multiculturalism, once again providing a platform for English-only supporters who characterize bilingual education as a threat to national unity. Obama himself has little to say about bilingual education, an issue he that he only lightly touched upon in his campaign. He seems to support transitional bilingual education: a policy that political pundits see as the safest stance and that educators on both sides of the fence view as an ineffective compromise.

Yet, despite my impatience for a serious overhaul of immigration, I would argue that bilingual education has no place in the debate to begin with. Despite the myths perpetuated by right-wing extremists that all English-language learners are the children of wily immigrants looking to get something for nothing, nearly 1/5 of these kids are born to citizens and legal residents, many of them third or fourth generation. Nevertheless, extremist politicians and their constituents see the immigration debate as an opportunity to push their English-only agenda, scaring those who are on the fence with doomsday descriptions of a modern Tower of Babel. This tactic couldn’t be more dangerous. By including bilingual education in the heated discussion on who deserves to be “in” or “out,” it is innocent children who quickly become the targets of racism and xenophobia. From where I stand, lumping pro-English education policies into immigration reform is, by far, the greatest threat to national unity. By demonizing schoolchildren who are struggling to learn English, we set the stage for an educational hierarchy where a child’s future success hinges on his or her mother tongue.

I think that Delia Pompa, the vice president for Education at the National Council of La Raza, said it best in her 2009 op-ed for the New York Times conversation on “The Best Way to Teach Young Newcomers.” In her defense of bilingual education, Pompa writes: “What doesn’t work is politicizing the issue. What occurs in the classroom should be determined by educators guided by what is good for all children; it shouldn’t be driven by debates on immigration.” Pompa argues that parents and educators, not politicians, should decide the future of bilingual education for the 5 million+ English-language learners in the system today, and I couldn’t agree more. “They are not all immigrants who arrived in the United States yesterday and at the schoolhouse door today. These are American children. And what has no chance at all of working is avoiding responsibility for educating these children.”

Recommended Reading:
The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens and the Nation

At War with Diversity: U.S. Language Policy in an Age of Anxiety

Brown Tide Rising: Metaphors of Immigrants in Contemporary American Public Discourse

Covering Immigration: Popular Images and the Politics of the Nation

Additional Articles About Immigration

About the Author: Rachael Kay Albers is a freelance writer, English teacher, and theater facilitator working to educate and empower indigenous women in Central America. In her spare time, she loves to maintain and improve her bilingualism by reading novels and watching movies in Spanish.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: