As school budgets dry up and the immigration debate remains tabled for the moment, immigrants are often left without the resources needed to integrate into American society. A long article in the New York Times this past week highlighted some schools in the Northeast that are struggling to overcome the isolationism of immigrant students, but this is an issue in every state in the U.S. Without an effective English-as-a-Second-Language program and a school that actively works to engage immigrant students with the entire student body, these new Americans often feel isolated, discriminated, separate. Currently more than 5.1 million students are ESL or ELL learners – 1 in 10 of all students enrolled in public schools- a number which has increased by 60% from 1995 to 2005. (Thomspon, Ginger. “Where Education and Assimilation Collide”)
Some of the immigration influx is from Mexico’s downturned economy in the 1980s and early 1990s, as well as the Mexican baby boom that followed on the heels of the American one. But this only explains a portion of the immigration phenomenon in the United States in 2009. Our immigrant population is growing more and more diverse, with refugees coming from Somalia, Sudan, eastern Europe, Central America, south Asia. Our workforce is now made up of new Americans from India and China, Liberia and Guinea, Iraq and Laos.
ESL teacher Ms. Cain explained the current situation succinctly. “I used to tell my students that they had to stay in school, because eventually the laws would change, they would become citizens of this country, and they needed their diplomas so they could make something of themselves as Americans. I don’t tell them that anymore. Now I tell them they need to get their diplomas because an education will help them no matter what side of the border they’re on.” As the Obama administration nears its two-month mark, immigrant advocates and international families are growing worried that some of his campaign promises might get overshadowed by the economic times, that comprehensive immigration reform might get side-staged by stimulus checks, although immigration reform arguably promises a more sustainable and enduring change for our economy. (Thomspon, Ginger. “Where Education and Assimilation Collide”)
One of the groups who could use some comprehensive immigration reform is Liberian-Americans. If their temporary protected status [TPS] is not renewed by President Obama, they could be deported beginning March 31. President Bush extended TPS in 2007 to this group of 3600 refugees who fled Liberia two decades ago during a grisly civil war. Here in Minnesota, nearly 1,000 of the 3600 Liberians who call Minneapolis “home” could be deported in March, sent back to a country that held elections in 2006 but is far from stable. Many of these families have lived in the U.S. for almost 20 years and are active members in the community and local economy. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., previously introduced legislation that would provide Liberians with an opportunity to apply for permanent residency, but it has not been passed yet. Therefore, it’s up to President Obama to ensure that these refugees are not only permitted to stay in the U.S. until their country is repaired but also extend to them the hand of permanent residency, an act that would greatly aid in this community’s integration into American life. (http://www.startribune.com/opinion/editorials/41056182.html?elr=KArksc8P:Pc:UthPacyPE7iUiD3aPc:_Yyc:aULPQL7PQLanchO7DiUr)
Similarly, some 30,000 Haitian immigrants face deportation in the coming months, despite the fact that their country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is ill-equipped to handle such an influx. Already short on water, food, housing and natural resources since the tropical storms last summer, some say such deportations could tax the tiny country beyond what it can handle. Despite appeals from the Haitian government to stay such deportations, the Department of Homeland Security has stated it intends to continue deporting undocumented Haitian immigrants. (Thompson, Ginger. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/04/us/04brfs-HAITIANDEPOR_BRF.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y)
Recent news highlights our failure to adequately integrate certain immigrant groups into our nation. This past week, several Somali leaders from Minneapolis testified at a Senate Homeland Security Meeting in Washington, DC. The meeting’s purpose was to probe the mysterious disappearance of several Somali youths over the past few months, including one Shirwa Ahmed who was a suicide bomber in Somalia. Osman Ahmed, president of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association, and Abdirahman Mukhtar, youth program manager at the Brian Coyle Community Center both testified at the DHS meeting. The concern arises from the alleged recruiting of Al-Shabaab — meaning “the youth” or “young guys” in Arabic – which has been able to attract some disaffected, un-integrated, jobless youth in the Somali community. With more than 200,000 Somalis living in the United States, Al-Shabaab poses a problem; however, it is paled in comparison to a failed integration and immigration system which creates such easy prey for extremist groups. While homeland security demands we investigate such terrorist recruiting claims, it is vital we do not forget that empty hands are very easily formed into closed fists. (Star Tribune)
Our government has not totally forgotten this root tenet of community integration. Congress recently passed Consolidated Security, Disaster Assistance and Continuing Appropriations Act of 2009 (Public Law 110-329), creating the Fiscal Year 2009 Citizenship Grant Program. Awarding approximately $1.2 million of federal funding in the form of $100,000 individual awards, this grant program is aimed to support citizenship programs for legal permanent residents (LPRs). When LPRs make the shift from residents to citizens, everyone wins. The naturalized citizens gain the right to vote and receive benefits; our communities gain involved members and a greater constituency; and our nation integrates one more immigrant family. This grant for community-based organizations will do more than facilitate ESL classes, civics review sessions, and N-400 applications – it will serve to more fully involve and integrate denizens into American life. We can all hope to see more initiatives like this through the Obama administration. (USCIS)
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