About a month ago, Senator Michael Bennet, a democrat from Colorado, introduced the English Learning and Innovation Act (see S. 1158). This act would provide grant money that would be used to improve programs to teach English to English learners. I found this piece of legislation refreshing amid all the calls for anti-immigration laws and states like Arizona and Georgia enacting such laws that have families fleeing in fear that they will be discovered when they enroll their children for school (see Georgia Immigration Law).
As I see it, the fundamental difference between the anti-immigration arguments and legislation such as Bennet’s is the view of the majority of English learners as either illegal immigrants or legal citizens. So which is it? According to Bennet in a post on The Hill’s Floor Action Blog:
there were 4.7 million English learners in U.S. schools as of the 2007-2008 school year, which is about 10 percent of all students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Just over three-quarters of elementary school English learners are U.S. citizens, and more than half of English learners in public schools are second or third-generation citizens (Kasperowicz, June 9, 2011)
This makes me stop and think about my experience with ELLs. I would have to agree that the majority of English learners I’ve worked with over the years were either children born in this country from illegal immigrants, or later generation ELLs. Of course, depending on where one teaches, one may see a much larger percentage of ELLs that are indeed illegal.
However, Senator Bennet’s numbers are intriguing and make me want to dig a little deeper. If the majority of our ELL population is in fact legal, then why the backlash from the American public that it is an unwanted drain on our economy to teach them English? Is it the case of the few “bad apples” spoiling it for everyone else? Granted, just because many English learners in our public schools were born in this country does not mean that their parents are legal citizens. Maybe this is the rub? In order to give the children their rights as American citizens we must implicitly support their illegal parents? The alternative would be to either split families apart or have thousands of U.S. citizens sent back to countries they don’t belong to when their parents flee.
It is an interesting conundrum, and one that will not be solved easily. However, I do believe that if Senator Bennet’s information is reliable, we must look further into this issue and find a way to improve the face of ELLs in our schools. When one looks at it from this perspective, it becomes less of an anti-immigration issue and more about improving education for our nation’s children.