Language Haven: For Young Newcomers, the First Step to Becoming American Is Learning English

By Chase-Lubitz, Jesse | Foreign Policy, September-October 2017 | Go to article overview

Language Haven: For Young Newcomers, the First Step to Becoming American Is Learning English


Chase-Lubitz, Jesse, Foreign Policy


BALTIMORE -- On June 29, 1987, Jermin Laviera attended her first English-language lesson still wearing her wedding dress. Though she had just arrived in Baltimore from Venezuela eight days earlier, acquiring the ability to communicate in her new home was so important that she went straight from her nuptials to class. Laviera still has a photograph of her 28-year-old self in the white patterned gown, a look of exhilaration in her brown eyes as she proudly holds her most valued treasure from that day. "Not a ring," she says with a smile. "It was a book."

Thirty years later, Laviera manages a desk in the lobby of the Esperanza Center in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore--the place where she took her first English class. She has long since retired her student status and now works in the center's client services department. Cutout snowflakes float suspended from the classrooms' ceilings, board games sit atop desks, and a "Stop Profiling Muslims" poster hangs on the wall. Up to 60 middle and high school-aged immigrants and refugees come here to learn the language of their adopted country.

Formerly known as the Hispanic Apostolate, the center started offering English-language classes to Cuban immigrants in 1963 and has since expanded--now supplying legal, medical, and other services. And though for many years Esperanza offered only adult ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses, in 2015 it launched a youth program in response to the surge the year before in unaccompanied minors crossing the southern U.S. border.

"[These kids were] totally flooding the public school system that was not prepared for that many ELLs [English-language learners]," says Brianna Melgar, the center's youth ESOL program coordinator.

Title III of the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by former President Barack Obama in 2015, requires all public schools in the United States to provide language assistance to students who need it. However, each state has the flexibility to execute that requirement as it deems fit. "ESL [English as a Second Language] courses vary considerably from state to state," says Victoria Palmer, a public affairs specialist at the Administration for Children & Families.

Public school ESOL classes are funded at the federal, state, and local levels--which means the programs are vulnerable to cuts in federal ESOL and immigrant education funds. These are disbursed to states according to immigrant population numbers. Since January, the Donald Trump administration has slashed the U.S. refugee intake from a proposed 110,000 to 50,000 in 2017. With fewer refugees, some wonder what will happen to the money allocated to teaching them English. Over the next decade, the administration also plans to reduce the number of legal immigrants by half.

But the Esperanza Center operates outside of that capricious system: Funding from private donors and the Catholic Charities network shields its ESOL program from policy shifts, and decision-makers work on-site, accessible to students and aware of their needs.

Esperanza's flexibility allows it to provide English-language classes for students who couldn't otherwise access them. …

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