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Permanent Outsiders

by Darryl Spencer

November 5,2006

Few topics recur in local headlines more than “illegal immigration” and the failures of “these people” to “fit in,” to learn our drinking-and-driving laws, even to avoid deportation when it threatens their children born here. Who is responsible for the permanent-outsider status of these immigrants?

In a college class this fall, I was helping students find research subjects for persuasive papers. An Asian-American student asked, “Why are we discriminated against? Why is one immigrant group allowed ‘official’ use of their language? We’ve been here for centuries, but we always knew that we had to learn ‘the American language.’ Now call any office and you’re asked whether you want Spanish or English. When did the rules change?”

How did we become a nation of two “official” languages that ignores the hundreds of other languages of our immigrants?

For years I taught English as a second language (ESL). I began in Oregon with students from up to ten linguistic backgrounds per class. No translation was allowed. We attempted “total immersion” because that’s how we learn our mother tongues.

In ESL classes, students learn first to speak, later to read, and finally to write. I have personal successes: a Russian man who arrived knowing some English and is now a full professor and my colleague; and a young Pole who showed up at an ESL class at the Jewish Community Center in Charleston, SC in 1992 with two years of technical college and knowing twenty words of English.

Ireneuscz was 22 and had a three-month tourist visa, but he intended to immigrate. He made it to Chicago because a sympathetic U.S. consul in Cracow was issuing visas; Ireneuscz’s father borrowed money from friends and two days later Ireneuscz flew to Chicago, where he soon found work as a floor cleaner—and thus became illegal—and was bused to S.C., along with other Eastern Europeans who wanted to save money, return to their homelands and start businesses. The Polish guy wanted to stay here. Through a time-honored process (did you see Green Card?) and with luck, and friends, he moved to an Eastern Seaboard city, found a job with a sympathetic couple who paid his taxes and made him legal. He graduated from MIT—after eight years in the US—with honors in physics, mathematics, and computer science and has an excellent job in software engineering.

But people like Ireneuscz have a much tougher trek getting here than those who walk across borders, if not in terms of physical or mortal danger. The Central Americans get here so easily because (1) they can and (2) American industries want them and (3) our government “fails” to keep them out. These industries include Charlotte builders, restaurants, hotels (who desperately need them, they admit), so our government encourages their migration northward—and their avoidance of immigration laws—to allow these illegals to pick our fruits and vegetables and to keep the homes and yards and children of Ballantyne and Quail Hollow well cared for. They don’t often learn English, or get OSHA protection, or advance into our universities. And they don’t take white-collar jobs away from us.

Yet Asians do take jobs from our computer engineers and staff our hospitals—for salaries far lower than Americans expect. My small home town in desperately poor Appalachia has more Subcontinental-born doctors than native ones. Local people may have difficulty with the immigrants’ accents, but they’re grateful to have these doctors. U.S.-trained doctors won’t work there.

Twenty-five years ago I got an MA specifically to teach ESL. But in spite of our vastly increased need for ESL instruction, paying jobs for qualified ESL instructors are increasingly hard to come by. Volunteer positions abound. Few of these teachers know what they’re doing. They’re expected to speak Spanish. Largely uneducated immigrants—the ones who’ve walked or been driven here—are left thinking they “just need some vocabulary,” not proficiency. Many never rise above their first jobs. After all, if the U.S. were interested in adding them to our historic melting pot—immigrants who quickly learned English, like my maternal German ancestors—good ESL instruction would be provided, wouldn’t it? And we thought indentured servitude ended in the late 19th century.

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