History > 2009 > USA > Immigration (I)
Drawing Borders Around Students
at Crossroads Over Immigration
June 13, 2009
The New York Times
By JESSE McKINLEY
SAN FRANCISCO — In the debate over illegal immigration, San Francisco has
proudly played the role of liberal enclave, a so-called sanctuary city where
local officials have refused to cooperate with enforcement of federal
immigration law and undocumented residents have mostly lived without fear of
But over the last year, buffeted by several high-profile crimes by illegal
immigrants and revelations of mismanagement of the city’s sanctuary policy, San
Francisco has become less like its self-image and more like many other cities in
the United States: deeply conflicted over how to cope with the fallout of
At the center of the turnaround is a new law enforcement policy focused on
under-age offenders who are in this country illegally. Under the policy, minors
brought to juvenile hall on felony charges are questioned about their
immigration status. And if they are suspected of being here illegally, they are
reported to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency for deportation,
regardless of whether they are eventually convicted of a crime.
“We went from being one of the more progressive counties in the country to
probably one of the least, and the most draconian,” said Abigail Trillin, the
managing attorney with Legal Services for Children, a nonprofit legal group.
“It’s been a total turnaround.”
Mayor Gavin Newsom, who ordered the new policy, disputes that characterization
and ticks off a list of policies that remain immigrant friendly: the issuing of
identification cards to residents regardless of legal status, the promotion of
low-cost banking and the city’s longstanding opposition to immigration raids.
“I’m balancing safety and rights,” Mr. Newsom said. “And I’m taking the arrows.”
The policy was put in place last summer amid a series of embarrassing
revelations about the city’s handling of illegal minors and even as reports
arose of several serious crimes committed by illegal residents. The policy has
led not only to dozens of juveniles in deportation proceedings, but also to
criticism from the city’s public defender and members of its Board of
Supervisors, which is threatening to relax it next month.
“I think the point of sanctuary is that you protect people and treat people the
same unless they engage in some felony crime,” said David Campos, a county
supervisor who came illegally to the United States from his native Guatemala
when he was 14.
The new approach has pitted a growing coalition of immigrants rights groups
against Mr. Newsom, who is running for governor in a state where immigrants,
particularly Latinos, can be vital to being elected.
Mr. Newsom defends the policy as an effort to bring the city’s juvenile protocol
in line with that for adult illegal immigrants, who have always been reported to
federal authorities if they are accused of a felony.
But immigration advocates say the policy has too often swept up juveniles who
are in this country illegally but who are innocent or held on minor charges, a
list that includes young men like Roberto, 14, who has lived in the United
States since he was 2.
Roberto, whose last name is being withheld at the request of his parents who are
also in the country illegally, was handed over to immigration authorities last
fall after he took a BB gun to school to show off to friends. He spent Christmas
at a juvenile facility in Washington State and is now facing deportation to
Mexico, where he was born.
The experience left Roberto shaken. “I was feeling really scared,” he said in an
Supporters of the new crackdown say that Roberto’s case is unrepresentative and
that the majority of youths turned over to the immigration authorities have
engaged in serious crimes, including those associated with the practice by
Honduran drug gangs in San Francisco of using minors as dealers.
“A lot of them have histories; a lot of them are second, third chances,” Mr.
Newsom said. “This is not as touchy feely as some people may want to make it.”
Mr. Newsom says he still supports the sanctuary ordinance, which grew out of
worries in the 1980s about the deportation of Central Americans to war-torn
regions. Made city law in 1989, the policy forbids city agencies to use
resources to assist in the enforcement of federal immigration law or information
While proponents say such policies help the police by making immigrant
communities — often suspicious of the authorities — more comfortable with
reporting crimes, critics say San Francisco’s policy had been stretched to
extremes, including the practice of occasionally flying some offenders back to
their home countries rather than cooperating with immigration authorities.
Mr. Newsom says he discovered and stopped that practice in May 2008, and quickly
ordered a review. Juvenile referrals began shortly thereafter and were
formalized as policy in August.
In the interim, however, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a group of
teenage Honduran crack dealers who had been sent to a group home simply walked
away from confinement.
A second event was more serious, when a father and two sons driving home from a
picnic were killed in a case of mistaken identity in June 2008. The police later
charged Edwin Ramos, an illegal immigrant from El Salvador and suspected gang
member who had had run-ins with the San Francisco police as a juvenile but had
not been turned over to the immigration authorities.
At the same time, San Francisco found itself under criminal investigation by the
United States attorney for the Northern District of California, and city
officials were eager to show that their city was not a lawless haven for
“If we start harboring criminals as a sanctuary city, this entire system is in
peril,” Mr. Newsom said.
For their part, immigration advocates say they are not asking the city to
shelter felonious youths from deportation. The problem, they say, is the point
of contact: at arrest, rather than after any sort of legal adjudication.
“Even if you’re undocumented, you have the right to due process,” said Jeff
Adachi, the city’s public defender.
The federal authorities, meanwhile, have been pleasantly surprised that the new
policy has resulted in more than 100 referrals.
“We are now getting routine referrals,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for
the immigration agency.
The most serious challenge to the policy is likely to come in July, when the
Board of Supervisors is expected to take up a proposal that would apply the
policy only to illegal juveniles found in court to have committed a felony. The
measure’s sponsor, Mr. Campos, said he expected it to pass.
Such an ordinance would not help Roberto, who is still waiting to plead his case
to an immigration judge. He said he had already learned a valuable lesson.
“I will never bring anything to school again,” he said.
San Francisco at
Crossroads Over Immigration, NYT, 13.6.2009,
Up and Out of New York’s Projects
May 31, 2009
The New York Times
By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
and MICHAEL WILSON
WHEN Sonia Sotomayor first set foot in the Bronxdale Houses along Bruckner
Boulevard in 1957, they encapsulated New York’s promise. The towers beckoned to
the working class as a coveted antidote to some of the city’s unlivable
residential spaces and, later on, its unfathomable rents. These were not the
projects of idle, stinky elevators, of gang-controlled stairwells where drug
deals go down. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, when most of the city’s public
housing was built, a sense of pride and community permeated well-kept corridors,
apartments and grounds. Far from dangerous, the projects were viewed as
There are more than 400,000 residents in the New York City Housing Authority’s
2,611 buildings at any given time. Judge Sotomayor, President Obama’s nominee
for the United States Supreme Court, is just one of more than 100 marquee names
on a city list of alumni.
Many are athletes or entertainers. Jay-Z, the rapper, grew up in the Marcy
Houses in Brooklyn. Wesley Snipes, the actor, in the Monroe Houses in the Bronx.
Marc Anthony, the salsa singer, in the Metro North Houses in East Harlem. Mike
Tyson and Hector Camacho, the boxers, and a deep bench of basketball players all
came up through the projects.
There are congressmen (Gary Ackerman, Eliot L. Engel, Gregory W. Meeks) and
chief executives: Lloyd C. Blankfein runs Goldman Sachs, Howard Schultz heads up
Starbucks, and Ursula M. Burns, who was named chief executive of Xerox this
month, will become the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company.
Today, the average income of residents is $22,728, the average rent $324. An
estimated 46 percent of families work, 12 percent are on public assistance. Some
buildings suffer from neglect, but there are waiting lists to get in.
In a 1999 article in a housing authority publication, Judge Sotomayor recalled
celebrating the move by pedaling her tricycle around the “spacious, pristine,
white” apartment — right into a wall, leaving an unmistakable black mark.
Petrified, 3-year-old Sonia hid under the bed for two hours. “Marring that wall
was the single most traumatic event of my childhood,” she was quoted as saying.
IT was fewer than 100 blocks from their shared apartment in Harlem to the
Dyckman Houses in Inwood, but for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his mother and father,
who made the move in 1950, it “was really considered a step up,” he recalled in
an interview last week. “We had two bedrooms — for us. We didn’t have to share
the kitchen or the bathroom.”
Mr. Abdul-Jabbar, 62, then known as Lew Alcindor, spent his childhood in
Building 3 on the fifth floor, leaving the complex only after the University of
California lured him west.
Home reverberated with the round-the-clock clatter of the El and the sounds of
his father, a transit officer who had gone to Juilliard, playing trombone and
piano. From their windows, the family could see the Cloisters rising in the
Doors were kept unlocked as kids bounced from one apartment to the next on rainy
Saturdays to watch Laurel and Hardy and Hopalong Cassidy on television. People
did the right thing, or “they could force you to leave,” he said. “When kids
played on the grass, their parents would get a warning. Friends of mine got
spanked sitting on the grass.”
The real bonding took place in Dyckman Park, now called Monsignor Kett
Playground, over stickball and stoopball, tag and ringolevio, handball and touch
football — “every game imaginable,” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar recalled.
One afternoon, his father took him to the Dyckman courts for an introduction to
basketball. “He abused me with his elbow and he said, ‘This is a rough game,’ ”
Mr. Abdul-Jabbar said. “I wised up quick and didn’t go there with my dad
It was on that slab of concrete that young Lew made his first dunk, in eighth
grade, after two years of dogged practice, he said. Not even deep winter kept
him and his friends from playing three-on-three, horse and 21. When the court
was crusted with ice, they got the park attendant to lend them an “implement” to
chop it up and clear it out.
The seven-building complex teemed with immigrants who mixed easily, but outside
its walls there were different rules. “North of Dyckman Street was Irish, south
of Dyckman was Jewish,” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar remembered. “From the sixth grade on,
there was friction with the Irish kids and the kids in the project. The Irish
kids looked down on us.”
His mother followed him along the sidewalk through Irish territory to school.
When the project kids walked to Little League, “we would meet at a predetermined
spot and go as a group,” he said. “That kind of kept the Irish kids at bay.”
It was only a few blocks to St. Jude, the parochial school where he refined his
basketball skills. The school harbors some of his best memories. And one of his
A commotion drew his attention out the window of his second-grade classroom. It
was Willie Mays, playing stickball with young Lew’s friends. The teacher would
not let him out.
“Baseball meant nothing to her,” he said, still incredulous. “By the time I got
there, he was gone. I hate her to this day.”
Her name, he said without pause despite the half-century gone by, was Gertrude
Doyle. LIZETTE ALVAREZ
Games and Cigarettes
“Tom Sawyer in Converse sneakers.”
That’s how Richard Price, 59, author of “Clockers” and “Lush Life,” described
his years in the Parkside Houses in the Bronx, from age 1 — when his parents
were finally able to move out of his mother’s childhood bedroom — to 18. The
bleakness of the Baltimore projects depicted in the HBO series “The Wire,” for
which Mr. Price wrote several episodes, is absent from his memories of cheery,
“It was a very functional, blue-collar world,” Mr. Price said. “It did not have
the connotation of public housing that public housing has now. All the families
were intact. All the fathers were employed.”
Every apartment seemed to have children. “Everybody would sit on a bench and
sort of bellow up for people to come down,” he said. “I played handball mostly,
one-wall handball. Basketball was more of a big-ticket thing to do. There was
touch football on the basketball courts, sometimes at the same time there were
basketball games going on.”
All the kids disappeared at the same time for dinner. At the Price apartment,
the television was always on and the meal usually came out of a can or two.
“The drink of the evening was soda,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who ever had
wine on the table. Everybody was watching ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ The
conversation consisted of my mother yelling at us and my father saying, ‘Leave
the kids alone.’ ”
Tuesday was his mother’s night to entertain. “I’d go to sleep to the sound of
mah-jongg tiles,” he said. “And smoking and coughing.”
Friday nights belonged to Dad, a cabdriver and window dresser. “All I heard was
the riffle of a poker deck. It was the same, laughing and cigarette smoke.”
Mr. Price looks back in disbelief at the opportunities for early death by his
own doing, starting on the roof.
“The big stupid thing was trying to stay on the outside of the guardrail and get
to the next building; that could still wake me up in the middle of the night,”
he said. “We also knew how to stop the elevators in between floors and get under
the elevator in the elevator shaft. The point of which was, I have no idea.
Danger for dummies.”
Rising to a Corporate Perch
It was not all hopscotch-and-shaved-ice idylls. The Baruch Houses on the Lower
East Side, where the morning sun was striped by the Williamsburg Bridge and the
cries of children lost beneath the roar of elevated trains, opened in 1953 amid
dirty alleys and half-demolished buildings. Born in 1958, Ursula M. Burns, was
not yet 3 when a group of five teenagers shot and killed a 76-year-old man in
the project for $2.60.
“There were lots of Jewish immigrants, fewer Hispanics and African-Americans,”
Ms. Burns said in a 2003 interview with The New York Times, “but the common
denominator and great equalizer was poverty.”
Ms. Burns, who was named this month as the next chief executive of Xerox, 28
years after joining the company for a summer internship, was traveling overseas
last week and unavailable for an interview. She has looked back fondly on
growing up on Delancey Street, where her mother, Olga, raised three children
alone, taking in laundry and other people’s children for day care.
At Cathedral High School, an all-girls Catholic school on East 56th Street,
Ursula excelled in math and made friends.
“Not too many girls mentioned that they lived in projects, because it was on the
lower scale,” said Vilma L. Aponte, who graduated with Ms. Burns in the class of
1976 and now lives in Fort Lauderdale. “When people got off the train at a
certain spot, you sort of know where they’re going.”
Another classmate, Sonia Y. Devarie, who also grew up in public housing, said
the girls spent their lunch breaks in homeroom escaping into the faraway world
on “All My Children.”
“Where you are is not who you are,” Ms. Burns said in a 2004 interview with a
Rochester newspaper. “We lived in a place where some people thought there was
limited opportunity. We never thought that.” MICHAEL WILSON
Be polite. That was a cardinal rule in the 1950s and 1960s at the
Elliott-Chelsea Houses in Manhattan. The tricky part was doing it in Ukrainian,
Polish or Spanish, depending on which door you knocked on.
“People were from Latvia, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Africa., From everywhere,” said
Whoopi Goldberg, 53, the actress and comedian who now is a co-host of the
television talk show “The View.” “So you had to be able to say things like,
‘Hello, I’m so and so,’ and ‘May I use the bathroom?’ in every language.”
Before Caryn Elaine Johnson became Whoopi Goldberg, she spent 19 years on the
sixth floor of the Chelsea Houses, as it was then known, with her mother, a
practical nurse and Head Start teacher, and her older brother. Their two-bedroom
place was immaculate — “in case the president came by,” Ms. Goldberg said her
mother told her — with the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix competing for wall space
with the era’s ubiquitous black velvet clown paintings.
The building bustled with working-class families. Elevators and hallways were
clean. Fights were settled mostly with fists. People were proud, but not so
proud they refused a hand when they needed it.
“You were never ashamed to bring people home,” Ms. Goldberg said. “We didn’t
know we weren’t supposed to do well. We were being taught by our parents that we
had it as good as we had it, and we could make it better. People who didn’t have
it good were living in the streets, in squalor.”
Out front, children swarmed, clapping out “Miss Mary Mack,” dodging the Double
Dutch rope, choosing sides to play ringolevio. Like today, sprinklers cut loose
and hydrants poured out in summer. Mister Softee drew the biggest crowds.
Parents were never visible but always present.
“They had eyeballs in the building,” Ms. Goldberg said. “You would look up and
see the curtains drawn. But on the stones up in the back there, the eyeballs
were looking at you. Someone, somehow, was seeing you.”
The Chelsea Houses of her memory stand in direct contrast to the portrait of
urban menace evoked by the word “project” today. “Whenever you look at
television or movies, they have these projects there — where elevators don’t
work and where things fall apart and where things are in the toilet,” Ms.
Goldberg said. “That’s not how I grew up. There has always been great pride in
being able to have a place of your own and take care of it. People I grew up
with felt the same way.” LIZETTE ALVAREZ
Up and Out of New York’s
Projects, NYT, 31.5.2009,
March 22, 2009
The New York Times
To the Editor:
Re “Where Education and
Assimilation Collide” (“Remade in America” series, front page, March 15):
Congratulations for turning the spotlight on immigration with your series. Its
principal focus should be on the long-term implications.
Thanks largely to immigration trends, the United States is on track to grow from
306 million today to 439 million by 2050, an increase in population with
enormous implications for water scarcity, social cohesion, quality of life,
educational attainment, the environment and our dependence on oil.
The critical question is not whether the country can absorb current levels of
immigration in 2009, but whether it can do so in the long run. We may live in
the moment, but future generations are condemned to living in the future. Let’s
ensure that it’s a sustainable future.
Richard D. Lamm
Denver, March 15, 2009
The writer was governor of Colorado, 1975-87.
To the Editor:
I am writing my dissertation about a Roman Catholic parish shared by Latin
American (largely Mexican) immigrants and white English-speaking Midwesterners.
They, too, are on different “tracks,” having distinct Masses and ministries.
Though many of the issues for these parishioners are different from those facing
the students in your article, the controversies over immigration are similar.
There are factors other than academic “tracks” that isolate immigrants. First
among them is loud local opposition to illegal immigration, which erodes trust.
Class prejudice appears to play a role at Hylton High School, the Virginia
school featured in the article, and I found cultural misunderstanding to be a
powerful force in keeping people apart in one Midwestern town.
Schools and churches can help build trust slowly by providing periodic
structured opportunities for people on different “tracks” to interact.
Berkeley, Calif., March 15, 2009
The writer, a Catholic priest, is an adjunct lecturer at the Franciscan School
To the Editor:
More than two decades ago, I attended high school near a ski resort where the
student body was divided along ethnic and class lines. About half of the
students’ parents were professionals, while the others toiled in construction
and service jobs.
The impetus for the integration of cultures then was also economic: Hispanic
families, attracted by low-paying but plentiful jobs in a prosperous location,
abandoned their roots in search of better opportunities.
However, most of our families hailed from New Mexico, so there was not a
language barrier. Still, the socioeconomic distance and tension between the
groups were amplified by academic separation.
Many Hispanic students dropped out or languished in lower-level courses or
special education. Stigmas and stereotypes abounded. The few of us in more
advanced classes often felt like foreigners in our own classroom.
It’s disappointing that while the scenery and particulars have changed over two
decades, the situation remains the same.
Denver, March 15, 2009
The writer is editor of Latino Landscape, an online magazine.
To the Editor:
I came to the United States with my parents and sister after the Hungarian
Revolution of 1956. In Los Angeles, we went to Bishop Conaty High School,
instead of a school for non-English speakers many miles away. Although we did
not speak a word of English, the students and faculty welcomed us.
The first year was very difficult; we spent many hours on homework, translating
every word. But the next year, an amazing transformation occurred — we started
speaking and understanding English. We graduated; my sister became a chemist and
I became a doctor.
Integrating non-English-speaking students into the mainstream makes sense. We
must educate other students and faculty about helping non-English-speaking
Judith Korek Amorosa
New Brunswick, N.J., March 15, 2009
To the Editor:
We applaud Hylton High School’s efforts to educate newcomer students, but we
think success for newcomers is based on more than academics. Work with the
family is critical, as is providing opportunities for the child beyond the
Community schools, in which vitally needed services as well as extended academic
opportunities are based at the school, offer more chances for a student to adapt
and excel. In this approach, trained staff members reach out to immigrant
families, bringing them into the school and connecting them to services. They
introduce them to other neighborhood families and help them feel less fearful
and more comfortable.
The outreach extends to new mothers to help them provide language-rich
environments for their infants. Children whose families are connected to their
schools fare better in life and in school than students who learn English by
cramming for high-stakes exams.
New York, March 15, 2009
The writer is director of community schools for the Children’s Aid Society.
To the Editor:
Applying one-size-fits-all state exams and the No Child Left Behind law to
immigrant children results in narrowed curriculums, endless test prep and
arbitrary declarations of school failure. Increasing percentages of students are
denied a quality education, which benefits neither the students nor society.
Policy makers must face the reality of the country’s public school population
and revise testing mandates accordingly. In particular, the law’s goal of 100
percent proficiency by 2014 is impossible when so many non-English-speakers
enter our schools every year.
President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should consider these
realities when proposing legislation to “fix the failures of No Child Left
Behind” as promised in last fall’s campaign.
Executive Director, FairTest
Boston, March 15, 2009
To the Editor:
What a disgrace that the talented Ginette Cain, who directs the high school
program for English learners in your article, needs to waste valuable class time
teaching immigrant students how to memorize disjointed facts so they will pass
required standardized tests.
Public education in the United States has so much to offer students — from
social assimilation to the ability to achieve personal and economic success —
yet these opportunities are being lost because of high-stakes testing.
This is the time to return to the education of the whole student.
Glenview, Ill., March 15, 2009
To the Editor:
I thought we’d pretty well settled in 1954 that segregation’s stigma was not
something American schools should perpetuate. But your article’s more
distressing image was the teacher informing her charges: “You don’t really need
to know anything more about the Battle of Britain, except that it was an air
strike. ... If you see a question about the Battle of Britain on the test, look
for an answer that refers to air strikes.”
No wonder dropout rates are high. It appears that the testocracy that runs our
schools has turned even the most vital, engaging stories of human history into
an exercise akin to memorizing phone books.
If I were still in high school, I might find something better to do with my
Palo Alto, Calif., March 15, 2009
Drawing Borders Around
Students, NYT, 22.3.2009,
and Assimilation Collide
March 14, 2009
The New York Times
By GINGER THOMPSON
WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Walking the halls of Cecil D. Hylton High School outside
Washington, it is hard to detect any trace of the divisions that once seemed
fixtures in American society.
Two girls, a Muslim in a headscarf and a strawberry blonde in tight jeans,
stroll arm in arm. A Hispanic boy wearing a Barack Obama T-shirt gives a
high-five to a black student with glasses and an Afro. The lanky homecoming
queen, part Filipino and part Honduran, runs past on her way to band practice.
The student body president, a son of Laotian refugees, hangs fliers about a bake
But as old divisions vanish, waves of immigration have fueled new ones between
those who speak English and those who are learning how.
Walk with immigrant students, and the rest of Hylton feels a world apart. By
design, they attend classes almost exclusively with one another. They take
separate field trips. And they organize separate clubs.
“I am thankful to my teachers because the little bit of English I am able to
speak, I speak because of them,” Amalia Raymundo, from Guatemala, said during a
break between classes. But, she added, “I feel they hold me back by isolating
Her best friend, Jhosselin Guevara, also from Guatemala, joined in. “Maybe the
teachers are trying to protect us,” she said. “There are people who do not want
us here at all.”
In the last decade, record numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal, have
fueled the greatest growth in public schools since the baby boom. The influx has
strained many districts’ budgets and resources and put classrooms on the front
lines of America’s battles over whether and how to assimilate the newcomers and
Inside schools, which are required to enroll students regardless of their
immigration status and are prohibited from even asking about it, the debate has
turned to how best to educate them.
Hylton High, where a reporter for The New York Times spent much of the past
year, is a vivid laboratory. Like thousands of other schools across the country,
it has responded to the surge of immigrants by channeling them into a school
within a school. It is, in effect, a contemporary form of segregation that
provides students learning English intensive support to meet rising academic
standards — and it also helps keep the peace.
In a nation where most students learning English lag behind other groups by
almost every measure, Hylton’s program stands out for its students’ high test
scores and graduation rates. However, at this ordinary American high school, in
an ordinary American suburb at a time of extraordinary upheaval, those
achievements come with considerable costs.
The calm in the hallways belies resentments simmering among students who barely
know one another. They readily label one another “stupid” or “racist.” The
tensions have at times erupted into walkouts and cafeteria fights, including one
in which immigrant students tore an American flag off the wall and black
students responded by shouting, “Go back to your own country!”
Hylton’s faculty has been torn over how to educate its immigrant population.
Some say the students are unfairly coddled and should be forced more quickly
into the mainstream. And even those who support segregating students admit to
soul-searching over whether the program serves the school’s needs at the expense
of immigrant students, who are relentlessly drilled and tutored on material that
appears on state tests but get rare exposure to the kinds of courses, demands or
experiences that might better prepare them to move up in American society.
“This is hard for us,” said Carolyn Custard, Hylton’s principal. “I’m not
completely convinced we’re right. I don’t want them to be separated, but at the
same time, I want them to succeed.”
Education officials classify some 5.1 million students in the United States — 1
in 10 of all those enrolled in public schools — as English language learners, a
60 percent increase from 1995 to 2005.
Researchers give many causes for the gaps between them and other groups. Perhaps
most paradoxical, they say, is that a nation that prides itself on being a
melting pot has yet to reach agreement on the best way to teach immigrant
In recent years, students learning English have flooded into small towns and
suburban school districts that have little experience with international
diversity. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators have come under increasing
pressure to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which
links every school’s financing and its teachers’ jobs to student performance on
The challenges have only intensified with a souring economy and deepening anger
over illegal immigration, provoking many Americans to question whether those
living here unlawfully should be educated at all.
Across the country, politics is never far from the schoolhouse door. Arizona,
California and Massachusetts adopted English-only education policies that
limited bilingual services. By contrast, school districts in Georgia and Utah
have recruited teachers from Mexico to work with their swelling Latin American
Near Washington, officials in Frederick County, Md., floated the idea of
challenging federal law by requiring students to disclose whether they are in
the country legally, an idea also proposed by the authorities in Culpeper
Then there is Hylton High School’s home county, Prince William. What was once a
mostly white, middle-class suburb 35 miles southwest of the nation’s capital has
been transformed by a construction boom into a traffic-choked sprawl of
townhouses and strip malls where Latinos are the fastest-growing group.
Neighborhood disputes led the county to enact laws intended to drive illegal
immigrants away. White and black families with the means to buy their way out of
the turmoil escaped to more affluent areas. Hispanic families, feeling
threatened or just plain unwelcome, were torn between those who had legal status
and those who did not. Many fled.
By last March, educators reported that at least 759 immigrant students had
dropped out of county schools. Hylton, whose 2,200 student population is almost
equal parts white, black and Latino and comes from working-class apartment
complexes and upscale housing developments, was one of the hardest hit.
The school’s program for English learners — a predominantly Latino group that
includes students from 32 countries who speak 25 languages — is directed by
Ginette Cain, 61, who says she was inspired to teach immigrant students because
she was once one herself.
Petite with a shock of red hair, the daughter of a lumberjack and a cook, Ms.
Cain was the first in her French-Canadian family to master English when they
arrived in Vermont in the 1950s. She served as a bridge between her parents and
their new homeland, helping them in meetings with landlords, teachers, doctors
and bill collectors.
The hostilities that today’s immigrants face, Ms. Cain said, have shaken her
faith in bridges.
“I used to tell my students that they had to stay in school,” Ms. Cain said,
“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,” she continued. “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.”
A Crash Program
It was crunch time at Hylton High: 10 minutes until the bell, two weeks before
state standardized tests, and a classroom full of blank stares suggesting that
Ms. Cain still had a lot of history to cover to get her students ready.
The question hanging in the air: “What is the name for a time of paranoia in the
United States that was sparked by the Bolshevik Revolution?”
“What’s that?” Delmy Gomez, a junior from El Salvador, said with a grimace that
caused his classmates to burst into laughter.
The question might have stumped plenty of high school students. But for Ms.
Cain’s pupils, it might as well have been nuclear physics.
Freda Conteh had missed long stretches of school in war-torn Sierra Leone. Noemi
Caballero, from Mexico, filled notebooks with short stories and poetry in
Spanish, but struggled to compose simple sentences in English.
Nuwan Gamage, from Sri Lanka, was distracted by working two jobs to support
himself because he found it difficult to live with his mother and her American
husband after spending most of his life apart from her. And Edvin Estrada, a
Guatemalan, worried about a brother in the Marines, headed off for duty in some
undisclosed hot spot.
Few of these students had heard of the Pilgrims, much less the history of
Thanksgiving. Idioms like “easy as pie” and “melting pot” were lost on them.
They knew little of the American Revolution, much less the Bolshevik.
“American students come to school with a lot of cultural knowledge that other
teachers assume they don’t have to explain because their kids get it from
growing up in this country, watching television or surfing the Internet,” Ms.
Cain said. “I can’t assume any of that.”
Education experts estimate that it takes the average learner of English at least
two years of study to hold conversations, and five to seven years to write
essays, understand a novel or explain scientific processes at the level of their
High schools, the last stop between adolescence and adulthood, do not have that
kind of time. Getting students to graduation often means catching them up to a
field that has a 15-year head start.
In recent decades, some degree of segregation has often been involved in
teaching immigrants. Through the 1980s, schools generally pulled them out of the
mainstream for at least an hour or two each day for “English as a Second
Language” courses that were largely focused on basic English and vocational
As national education standards were adopted in 1989, some school districts
established dual-language programs that allowed students learning English to
study core subjects in their native languages until they were able to move into
mainstream classes. Other districts, hit by the largest waves of immigrants,
established so-called newcomer schools, where immigrants were clustered to help
them adapt to their new surroundings and develop their English skills before
moving on to regular schools.
When significant numbers of immigrants began arriving in Prince William County,
the school district, like others across the country, essentially created
newcomer schools-within-schools, where students learning English are placed for
all but a few electives like art, R.O.T.C. or auto mechanics. The goal,
educators say, is to give them intensive attention until they are ready to join
The reality, experts acknowledge, is that only a few high school students ever
make that jump.
“I would love nothing better than to have my kids in classes all over the
building,” Ms. Cain said. “But you know what would happen to them? They’d move
to the back of the class, then they’d fail, and then they’d drop out.”
She began building her program — known formally as English for Speakers of Other
Languages, or ESOL — in 2001, when she enlisted a colleague to teach a separate
world history class for those learning English.
Ms. Cain sat in to learn the information, then taught a review class so her
students understood the material well enough to pass state tests.
The following years, she set up similar pairs of classes in earth science,
biology and American history. A Peruvian teacher, who made fun of his own thick
accent so the students would be less self-conscious about theirs, began teaching
algebra and geometry. And the head of the English department agreed to teach a
class that would help students complete a required research paper.
The curriculum for those learning English covers most of the same material
taught in mainstream classes, except that teachers move more slowly and rely
more on visual aids. Students in Ms. Cain’s program generally outperform other
English learners in the state on standardized tests, and do as well or better
than Hylton’s mainstream students. Last year, for example, all of the English
learners passed Virginia’s writing exam; by comparison, 97 percent of the
general population passed. In math, 91 percent of Hylton’s ESOL students passed
the exam, the same percentage as other students. And 89 percent of the English
learners passed the history exam, compared with 91 percent of the others.
Teaching to Tests
The consistently good scores turned out by Hylton’s English learners gave rise
to suspicions of cheating a few years ago, which a state audit concluded were
unfounded. But watching the program up close reveals that certain tricks and
shortcuts are built in.
Sample tests are published on the Internet, for example. Ms. Cain studies them
and uses them as guides. “It used to be that we were told not to teach to the
test,” she said. “Now, that’s what everyone tells us, from state administrators
“Teachers know what’s going to be on the test,” she added. “And if you only have
a limited amount of time, that’s what you’re going to teach.”
Compared with mainstream students, the average English learner at Hylton spends
twice the time with twice the number of teachers on core subjects needed to
graduate. Their classes are light on lectures and heavy on drills, games and
worksheets intended to help them memorize facts about topics as varied as
European monarchies, rock formation and the workings of the human heart.
At Hylton, freshmen finish Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in a month, while
immigrants pore over it for an entire semester. Most mainstream students take
tests with essay questions on the phases of the water cycle; the English
learners have the option to draw posters, like one by a Bolivian-born boy who
depicted himself as a water molecule rising from an ice cube, drifting into a
cloud and raining over his homeland.
The immigrant students are given less homework and rarely get failing grades if
they demonstrate good-faith efforts. They are given more credit for showing what
they know in class participation than on written assignments. And on state
standardized tests, they are offered accommodations unavailable to other
Teachers, for example, are allowed to read test questions to them. In some
cases, the students are permitted to respond orally while teachers record their
In Ms. Cain’s 90-minute history review classes, which can touch on topics from
the reign of Marie Antoinette to the Iraq war, getting ready for tests often
seems the sole objective. Ms. Cain routinely interrupts discussions to emphasize
“Write this down,” she told a class one day. “There’s always a question about
Significant historical episodes are often reduced to little more than sound
bites. “You don’t really need to know anything more about the Battle of Britain,
except that it was an air strike,” Ms. Cain told one class. “If you see a
question about the Battle of Britain on the test, look for an answer that refers
to air strikes.”
Often, she manages to combine her test tips with comparisons to historical
struggles and the ones her students face today. That is how she taught them
about the aftershocks of the Bolshevik Revolution. The period of paranoia that
gripped the United States, she told students, was known as the Red Scare.
“If you see a question about Bolsheviks on the test,” Ms. Cain said, “the answer
is probably Red Scare.”
Unsatisfied, Delmy asked whether Americans were right to have been afraid of a
“This kind of fear has happened a few times in our history,” Ms. Cain said. “You
know, where we blame foreigners for our problems, for wrecking the economy, for
stealing our jobs. You see where I’m going?”
Melting Pot/Pressure Cooker
Like so many other suburban communities transformed by immigration, Prince
William County was overwhelmed as much by the pace of the change as by its
In a blink of history’s eye, this commuter community became one of the 12
fastest-growing counties in the country, with a Hispanic population that surged
to 19 percent from 2 percent, far outpacing growth by any other group since
1980. The enrollment of children with limited proficiency in English grew 219
percent. The county, the scene of some of the first skirmishes of the Civil War,
became a battleground again.
Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the all-white, predominantly Republican Board of
Supervisors, led the cause of those who argued that illegal immigrants — an
estimated 30 percent of all those moving into the county — were an undue burden
on taxpayers. It cost Prince William $40.2 million, about 5 percent of the
school budget, to provide additional services to students with limited English
last year, for example.
Mr. Stewart ordered his staff to identify services the county could deny to
illegal immigrants. And he was a co-author of an ordinance that would have
allowed the county police to check the immigration status of anyone they stopped
whom they also suspected of living in the country illegally. (The authorities
later backed off, limiting the police to checking the status of anyone
“We didn’t set out to pass a law addressing immigration,” Mr. Stewart said in an
interview. “We wanted to address issues involving problems in housing, in
hospitals, in schools and with crime. And we found that when we looked at all
those areas, illegal immigration was driving a lot of the problems.”
In neighborhoods, however, many people did not make distinctions between legal
and illegal immigrants. Some residents complained of a “foreign invasion.”
Constructive dialogue was often drowned out by hate-filled blogs, headlines and
protests. And school boundaries were bitterly contested, with some families
moving their children into schools with lower populations of immigrants, and
others flexing their political influence to try to keep the immigrants out.
Many parents worried that the Latino influx strained schools’ resources, eroding
the quality of their children’s education.
“I have no problem with immigrants,” said Lori Bauckman-Moore, a mother of five
who said her mother came through Ellis Island. “But so many of these kids don’t
speak English. I’m talking fourth, fifth and sixth grades, where half of the
kids don’t understand what their teachers are telling them. How can my child
learn when teachers have to spend most of their time focused on the kids who
cannot keep up with the curriculum?”
At Hylton, Ms. Cain’s school-within-a-school began to feel like a bunker. Two
brothers from El Salvador vented in class about always having to look over their
shoulders, and then stopped coming to school. A boy from Mexico disappeared,
calling a month later to ask Ms. Cain to send his transcripts to Houston.
Eventually the tumult threatened the teacher’s pet: Jorge Rosales, a shy,
strapping Mexican who wore gel in his hair and a medallion of the Virgin of
Guadalupe around his neck.
When Jorge arrived at Hylton his sophomore year, he was reading at a sixth-grade
level and failing most classes. Two years later, he was playing on the soccer
team and on his way to graduating with honors.
But early last year, six months from getting his diploma, Jorge told Ms. Cain
his father had lost his construction job, his parents had fallen behind in their
mortgage payments, and, since no one in the Rosales family was in the country
legally, his mother lived in fear that a minor traffic infraction could lead to
Ms. Cain called each member of the County Board of Supervisors and told them the
crackdown was infringing on immigrant students’ rights to an education. “They
told me I was the only person calling to complain,” she said. “All their other
calls were from people who supported what they were doing.”
Before long, the polarization outside Hylton reinforced the divide between the
two groups of students inside the school.
Teachers set the tone. In their classrooms, some tiptoed around the immigration
debate or avoided it altogether. Advisers to student groups created to examine
pressing issues — including the school newspaper, the Model United Nations and
the World of Difference Club — similarly ignored the matter. And the teachers
for those learning English made little effort to organize activities that would
bring them and mainstream students together.
“To create a positive environment for my kids,” Ms. Cain said, “I’ve had to
control who they’re exposed to.”
The silence and separation fueled an us-versus-them dynamic. The president of
Hylton’s parent-teacher-student organization recalled her daughter complaining
about an immigrant student wearing a T-shirt that said, “They Can’t Deport Us
All.” A Peruvian mother remembered her son coming home and asking, “Are we
When asked why they did not have any friends among the immigrant students, some
mainstream students responded by mentioning a worker who did not finish a job
their parents had paid for, or a line of pregnant women at the clinic where
their mother works, or a gang member who stole a friend’s books.
“I identify with the people I hang around with,” said an editor of the student
newspaper, who is not named because she spoke without her parents’ permission.
“My friends’ parents are not cashiers or people who wash dishes.”
When Ms. Cain’s students are asked why they have not made friends outside their
group, they often tell stories about a customer who cursed at them while they
were working at McDonald’s, or an employer who cheated their father of his
wages, or a student who told them to stop speaking Spanish on the school bus.
Romina Benitez Aguero said that a neighbor greeted her cheerfully on the street,
but that the woman’s daughters — both Hylton students — snubbed her.
And Francisco Espinal, from Honduras, said a teacher once shouted at him for
running in the halls. “This is not your country,” he recalled the teacher
saying. “You are in America now.”
Costs Versus Benefits
The more Amalia Raymundo goes to school, the more she feels her options
narrowing. She was a rising star in her remote village in Guatemala, the
region’s beauty queen and a candidate for college scholarships. But she came to
this country two years ago to get to know a mother she had not seen since she
was a baby, with the belief that an American education would help her fulfill
her dreams of “becoming someone.”
She works hard to make all A’s. But this year, she started to wonder whether the
work was worth it, and she nearly dropped out.
Amalia’s classes are all in English. Still, Amalia, 19, worries that because she
spends most of her school day speaking Spanish with other students, and then
with her parents at home, it could be years before she is able to speak, read
and write English fluently enough to compete for college.
It means she has had little access to peers and networks that might help her
learn to better navigate her new country, apply for scholarships, make her own
MySpace page or drive a car. She lives an hour’s drive from Washington, but has
visited only once, on a field trip with other immigrant students.
“If I am going to end up cleaning houses with my mother,” Amalia said to explain
why she almost quit Hylton, “why go to high school?”
Hylton’s program has become a source of pride for helping immigrant students
succeed in school, but also a target of criticism that segregated classes have
handicapped students by isolating them and “dumbing down” the curriculum.
“High schools have to make a pragmatic choice when it comes to these kids,” said
Peter B. Bedford, a history teacher who supports the program. “Are you going to
focus on educating them, or socially integrating them?”
“This school has made the choice to focus on education,” he added. “The best
tools we can give them to function in this society are their diplomas.”
But Amy Weiler, an assistant principal, worried whether the program had turned
high school into more of an end than a beginning. “If you ask whether our
program is successful at getting our students to pass tests, the data would
indicate that it is,” Ms. Weiler said. “But if you ask whether we are helping
our students to assimilate, there’s no data to answer that question.”
“My fear,” she added, “is that if we take a look at where our ESOL students are
10 years from now, we’re going to be disappointed.”
Studies suggest that English learners in separate, so-called sheltered
classrooms perform better in school than do the majority of their peers who are
immersed in the mainstream with little or no language support. There has been no
systematic tracking, however, of English learners beyond graduation to determine
whether schools are leveling playing fields or perpetuating the inequalities of
a stratified society.
Some students, of course, successfully climb into the middle class and beyond,
as generations of immigrants before them have. But Hispanic college graduation
rates — 16 percent of 25- to 29-year-old Hispanics born in the United States
hold a college degree, compared with 34 percent of whites and 62 percent of
Asian-Americans — suggest that many recent immigrants and their children are not
going to college.
Ms. Cain’s anecdotal evidence bears that out. A handful of her students go on to
four-year colleges, while others enroll in community colleges or join the armed
services. The majority, however, eventually move into the same low-skilled jobs
as their parents.
“I love hearing from my students,” Ms. Cain said. “But then again, I don’t,
because I usually don’t hear what I had hoped.”
Those hopes, for example, had propelled Ms. Cain’s star student, Jorge, to
graduation. After his family moved to Alexandria, she adjusted his schedule so
his mother could drive him the hour to school.
He loved Hylton, he recalled in an interview. “It is the only place where
everybody has the same chance,” he said. But now, without enough money for
college — and English skills still so weak that completing community college
seems a much more daunting prospect — he installs drywall with his father.
He still remembers the architectural design class he took at Hylton and the
ambitions to become a foreman it inspired. “Sometimes when I see the floor
plans,” he said wistfully, “I think about high school.”
Amalia, who once thought about becoming a doctor, has also learned to adjust her
“When I came to this country, I had my bags packed with dreams,” she said. “Now
I see my dreams are limited.”
Where Education and
Assimilation Collide, NYT, 15.3.2009,
Target of Immigrant Raids Shifted
February 4, 2009
The New York Times
By NINA BERNSTEIN
The raids on homes around the country were billed as carefully planned hunts
for dangerous immigrant fugitives, and given catchy names like Operation Return
And they garnered bigger increases in money and staff from Congress than any
other program run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even as complaints
grew that teams of armed agents were entering homes indiscriminately.
But in fact, beginning in 2006, the program was no longer what was being
advertised. Federal immigration officials had repeatedly told Congress that
among more than half a million immigrants with outstanding deportation orders,
they would concentrate on rounding up the most threatening — criminals and
Instead, newly available documents show, the agency changed the rules, and the
program increasingly went after easier targets. A vast majority of those
arrested had no criminal record, and many had no deportation orders against
Internal directives by immigration officials in 2006 raised arrest quotas for
each team in the National Fugitive Operations Program, eliminated a requirement
that 75 percent of those arrested be criminals, and then allowed the teams to
include nonfugitives in their count.
In the next year, fugitives with criminal records dropped to 9 percent of those
arrested, and nonfugitives picked up by chance — without a deportation order —
rose to 40 percent. Many were sent to detention centers far from their homes,
The impact of the internal directives, obtained by a professor and students at
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law through a Freedom of Information lawsuit and
shared with The New York Times, shows the power of administrative memos to
significantly alter immigration enforcement policy without any legislative
The memos also help explain the pattern of arrests documented in a report,
criticizing the fugitive operations program, to be released on Wednesday by the
Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington.
Analyzing more than five years of arrest data supplied to the institute last
year by Julie Myers, who was then chief of Immigration and Customs Enforcement,
the report found that over all, as the program spent a total of $625 million,
nearly three-quarters of the 96,000 people it apprehended had no criminal
Without consulting Congress, the report concluded, the program shifted to
picking up “the easiest targets, not the most dangerous fugitives.”
It noted, however, that the most recent figures available indicate an increase
in arrests of those with a criminal background last year, though it was unclear
whether that resulted from a policy change.
The increased public attention comes as the new secretary of Homeland Security,
Janet Napolitano, has ordered a review of the fugitive teams operation, which
was set up in 2002 to find and deport noncitizens with outstanding orders of
deportation, then rapidly expanded after 2003 with the mission of focusing on
the most dangerous criminals.
Peter L. Markowitz, who teaches immigration law at Cardozo and directs its
immigration legal clinic, said the memos obtained in its lawsuit reflected the
Bush administration’s effort to appear tough on immigration enforcement during
the unsuccessful push to pass comprehensive immigration legislation in 2006, and
amid rising anger over illegal immigration.
“It looks like what happened here is that the law enforcement strategy was
hijacked by the political agenda of the administration,” he said.
Kelly A. Nantel, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency, defended the program.
“For the first time in history, we continue to reduce the number of immigration
fugitive cases,” she said, noting that the number of noncitizens at large with
outstanding deportation orders, which peaked at 634,000 in the 2007 fiscal year,
is now down to about 554,000. “These results speak for themselves and they are
consistent with Congress’s mandate: locate and remove immigration absconders.”
Ms. Nantel said the number of fugitives with criminal backgrounds arrested in
the 2008 fiscal year rose to 5,652, or 16 percent of 34,000 arrests, and
nonfugitives fell to 8,062, or 23 percent.
Many Americans have welcomed roundups of what the agency calls “ordinary status
violators” — noncitizens who have no outstanding order of deportation, but are
suspected of being in the country unlawfully, either because they overstayed a
visa or entered without one.
But Michael Wishnie, one of the authors of the report, who teaches law at Yale,
said that random arrests of low-level violators in residential raids not only
raised a new set of legal and humanitarian issues, including allegations of
entering private homes without warrants or consent and separating children from
their caretakers, but was “dramatically different from how ICE has sold this
program to Congress.”
“If we just want to arrest undocumented people,” he said, “we can do it much
Congressional financing for the fugitive operations program rose to $218 million
in the 2008 fiscal year, from $9 million in 2003, as the number of seven-member
teams multiplied to 104 from 8.
In Congressional briefings and public statements since 2003, agency officials
have repeatedly said that given the vast number of immigrants with outstanding
deportation orders, the program will focus its resources on the roughly 20
percent with a criminal background.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo dated Jan. 22, 2004, underscored
that commitment: “Effective immediately, no less than 75 percent of all fugitive
operations targets will be those classified as criminal aliens” — noncitizens
with a criminal record as well as an order of deportation. It added that
“collateral apprehensions” — immigration violators encountered by chance during
an operation — would not be counted in that percentage.
But on Jan. 31, 2006, a new memo changed the rules. The directive, from John P.
Torres, acting director of the agency, raised each team’s “target goal” to 1,000
a year, from 125.
And it removed the requirement that at least 75 percent of those sought out for
arrest be criminals. Instead, it told the teams to prioritize cases according to
the threat posed by the fugitive, with noncriminals in the lowest of five
categories. And it repeated that “collateral apprehensions will not count”
toward the 1,000 arrest quota.
But that standard, too, was dropped nine months later. A new memo from Mr.
Torres said “nonfugitive arrests may now be included” to reach the required
1,000 arrests. On average, however, it said at least half of those arrested by
each team should be fugitives. It also promised to “ensure the maximum
availability of detention space for fugitive arrest operations.”
One result was an increase in noncriminals held in immigration detention.
Another, the Migration Policy Institute report concluded, was that the
percentage of criminal fugitives arrested plummeted, to 9 percent in the year
that ended Sept. 30, 2007, from 39 percent in the 2004 fiscal year.
That same year, 15,646, or 51 percent of those arrested, had an outstanding
deportation order, but no criminal record, and 12,084, or 40 percent, were
termed “ordinary status violators” who did not fit any of the program’s priority
The report said the program relied on a database riddled with errors, and that
many deportation orders were issued without the subject in court, sometimes
because of faulty addresses.
The looser rules were reflected in sweeps like one conducted in New Haven in
June 2007. During the raid, lawyers at Yale’s immigration law center said,
agents who found no one home at an address specified in a deportation order
simply knocked on other doors until one opened, pushed their way in, and
arrested residents who acknowledged that they lacked legal status.
Of the 32 arrested and scattered to jails around New England, only 5 had
outstanding deportation orders, and only 1 or 2 had criminal records.
Despite Vow, Target of
Immigrant Raids Shifted, NYT, 4.2.2009,
Struggle With Formal Schooling
January 25, 2009
The New York Times
By JENNIFER MEDINA
Fanta Konneh is the first girl in her family to go to school. Not the first
to go to college, or to graduate from high school. Fanta, 18, who grew up in
Guinea after her family fled Liberia, became the first to walk into a classroom
of any kind last year.
“Just the boys go to school, so I always knew I was left out,” said Fanta, a
student at Ellis Preparatory Academy in the South Bronx. “But here, I am trying.
I can say many things I did not know before. I can learn things more.”
New York City classrooms have long been filled with children from all over the
world, and the education challenges they bring with them. But hidden among the
nearly 150,000 students across the city still struggling to learn English are an
estimated 15,100 who, like Fanta, have had little or no formal schooling and are
often illiterate in their native languages.
More than half of these arrive as older teenagers and land in the city’s high
schools, where they must learn how to learn even as their peers prepare for
state subject exams required for a diploma.
“They don’t always have a notion of what it means to be a student,” said
Stephanie Grasso, an English teacher at Ellis Prep, which opened this fall and
is New York’s first school devoted to this hard-to-educate population. “Certain
ideas are completely foreign to them. They have to learn how to ask questions
and understand things for themselves.”
The largest share of these students come from rural areas of the Dominican
Republic, where they did not attend school because it was too far away or
because they were working to support their families. Others fled religious
persecution in Tibet, civil wars in West Africa or extreme poverty in Central
America, often missing years of class while in refugee camps.
One of the 82 pupils at Ellis, Harunar Rashid, said he spent his first two years
in the United States as an indentured servant to a Bangladeshi family, finally
escaping. School officials believe that he was imprisoned, but have not pursued
it because he does not know where he was held.
New York is one of the only states to identify these difficult cases,
classifying them as Students with Interrupted Formal Education, but state
education officials do not offer a suggested curriculum, provide any additional
financing or track their progress. Last year, New York City provided a total of
$2.5 million to 53 schools with large populations of these students — about $165
extra per person; they are entitled to the same extra services as others who are
still learning English, but nothing more.
The number of students classified this way has swelled 50 percent from a decade
ago. According to the city’s Department of Education, the graduation rate of
these students in 2007 was 29 percent, less than half the city’s overall rate of
62 percent. (The 29 percent rate is for all students who enter the system
lacking formal education, including those who start as early as third grade; the
city does not separately track dropouts and graduations among those like Fanta
who arrived as older teenagers.)
Educators who work with such students, and experts who study their problems, say
that teenagers who arrive unable to read in any language face tremendous
pressure to earn an independent living while racing to catch up on more than a
decade of academic building blocks. Elaine C. Klein, a linguistics professor at
City University of New York, started a research project following 98 such
students in 2007, and by the next year could locate only 48 of them: the others
had returned to their home countries, left school for unskilled jobs or
“This is the very literal definition of slipping through the cracks,” Professor
About 60 percent of such teenagers attend the city’s large, comprehensive high
schools. Others enroll in a dozen operated by the nonprofit Internationals
Network for Public Schools for immigrants of all educational backgrounds. The
international schools have graduation rates above the city average, but do not
separately track the performance of those classified as having interrupted
Maria Santos, director of the city’s office of English Language Learners, said
small schools are not necessarily preferred, and that large schools with a
“critical mass” of such students can create programs to help them.
Professor Klein and other experts agree there is not yet a consensus on what
works best, but say the system over all generally does not serve these
immigrants well. They cited examples of students discouraged from enrolling in a
particular school, shunted inappropriately into special education programs, or
spending years in class without progressing beyond grade-school work. Some
teenagers are insulted at being handed picture books, while others are flummoxed
by being asked to write three-page essays.
“You can’t teach them about evaporation if they don’t know how water is
constructed,” Professor Klein said. On the other hand, she said: “They already
know the concept of a color, but they just need to know the name of the color.
They already have the basic knowledge and they have been able to think quite
well, thank you very much.”
At one Queens high school, she said, the principal eliminated two classrooms
dedicated to these students. “He said, ‘Look, you have to understand my
position: what this group does for my school is bring down my numbers,’ ”
Professor Klein recalled. “But think about these children; who is going to serve
Ellis Prep — whose name both evokes the island and is an acronym for English
Language Learners and International Support — was created by Norma Vega, a
social worker and a former principal at Bronx International High School. She
recalled a young woman from Macedonia who spent four years studying at Bronx
International but still, at 21, could not read better than a fourth grader, and
was given a special education diploma. One young man, from West Africa, came to
school every day until he was 22, then stopped showing up.
“If they were all sent to regular high schools, they would simply be lost,” Ms.
Convinced that the students who did best were those who got special attention
from adults, Ms. Vega hired four teachers and four academic coaches, three of
them part time, who sit by students’ sides in class to walk them through
lessons. On top of standard per-pupil funding, the school has a $200,000,
four-year grant from the Institute for Student Achievement, a national group
that supports small schools, and $76,000 this year from the city.
Ellis has the same graduation requirements as other high schools, and students
take English, math, history and science for an hour a day each, along with
violin or dance. Every six weeks, they present a “defense of learning” project,
talking for 30 to 45 minutes about, say, how a rocket launches or the gods of
Hinduism, then taking questions.
Despite the daunting mountain of ground they must make up, many Ellis students
have big ambitions. Teenagers who can hardly read English speak confidently of
futures as nurses, architects or chemists. There is constant talk of college
even for those muddling through basic geometry.
“The most difficult thing is that they won’t all be able to make it,” Ms. Vega
said. “Their work ethic is impeccable, but they may not be able to get there.”
Morry Bamba, who is 18 and, like his cousin Fanta, entered school for the first
time when he arrived in the United States three years ago, is one of the most
perplexing cases. He speaks with ease, eagerly telling a visitor: “I knew how
lucky I was coming here. When I was in Guinea, all the kids I knew who went to
school said it was the best.” But Morry’s academic progress is sluggish. “You
give him a Cat in the Hat book, and he may not struggle with that, but he can
barely read,” Ms. Vega said.
Drawing on the philosophy of the Internationals Network, which began operating
schools in the 1990s, Ellis students work often in small groups, with the newest
relying on those who have been around longer for explanation and translation.
Shortly after he arrived at the school from Mali, Djibril Sumarei was taking
instruction on how to construct a religion poster for history class from
Mohammed Alesadi, who immigrated from Yemen two years ago and often writes words
“I write in Arabic and you write in French,” Mohammed directed him in English.
Every few minutes, they exchanged quiet words in Arabic, the language of the
Muslim school Djibril attended for a few years in Mauritania. The poster was
covered in hard-to-decipher captions.
The state defines a “student with interrupted formal education” as anyone who
has been out of school for at least two years, but many at Ellis might be more
aptly described as undereducated: Djibril, for example, at times attended school
a few hours a day, or in classes of 85, or studied only the Koran.
In an intake evaluation about a month after Djibril arrived, Annie Smith, an
academic coach, tried to fill in the particulars.
“Are you here with your family?” she asked.
Djibril nodded yes. He supplied his address on Boston Post Road.
Yes, his siblings were in school.
Hobbies? Soccer. Chores? Looking after younger brothers.
“How is school for you?” Ms. Smith asked. “Is it difficult? Is it interesting?”
A student Ms. Smith had recruited to translate supplied the answer: “He doesn’t
understand English. This is a big problem. But science, science is the most
Then Djibril’s complicated migration story unfolded. Ivory Coast. Senegal.
Burkina Faso. Mauritania. The hows and the whys — even the whens — of each move
were not clear. Ms. Smith did not press too much.
Fanta is an example both of how far many of the students have come and of how
much more they face. “I was not knew body in my class and lunch time,” she wrote
in a memoir for Ms. Grasso’s class to explain how lost she felt when she first
arrived. Eventually she made friends, Fanta wrote, and “how to do communicates
in school now I know.”
In an interview, Fanta spoke confidently of a future in business. “If I have
money, maybe I can send it back to Africa,” she said. “I can help my mother. I
can come to school for that, too.”
But after a fall of perfect attendance, Fanta has not returned to school since
New Year’s. Ms. Vega says she has since learned that she is five months
Immigrant Teens Struggle
With Formal Schooling, NYT, 25.1.2009,
A Sense of Who We Are
January 13, 2009
The New York Times
A scene from the last days of the Bush administration: On a snowy afternoon
last weekend, a church in New York City is filled to bursting with more than
1,000 people. Parents holding babies, teenagers, old men and women with heavy
coats and canes. They murmur and shout in prayer, a keyboard and guitar carrying
their voices to the height of the vaulted ceiling.
The music has a deafening buoyancy, but as congregants step forward to speak,
their testimony is heavy with foreboding and sorrow. They tell of families
terrorized and split apart.
A young woman from Pakistan describes humiliating conditions at a detention
center in Elizabeth, N.J., where she was sent with her mother and ailing father.
A mother tells of her son, an Army sergeant and citizen, losing his wife to
deportation. A Mexican man, with theatrical defiance, waves a shoe at the
unnamed forces that have thwarted his desire to legalize.
It is hard to appear sinister in a church, and the congregation at Iglesia La
Sinagoga, a center of Pentecostalism on 125th Street in East Harlem, seemed
utterly ordinary. But as undocumented immigrants and their loved ones, they are
the main targets of the Bush administration’s immigration war.
Families like theirs have endured a relentless campaign of intimidation and
expulsion, organized at the top levels of the federal government and haphazardly
delegated to state and local governments.
The campaign has been disproportionate and cruel. The evidence is everywhere.
On Monday, The Times reported that federal immigration prosecutions had soared
in the last five years, overloading federal courts with misdemeanor cases of
illegal border crossers, who are tried and sentenced in groups of 40 to 60 for
efficiency. At the same time, prosecutions for weapons, organized crime, public
corruption and drugs have plummeted. The Arizona attorney general called the
situation “a national abdication by the Justice Department.”
And last week, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, in an appalling last-minute
ruling, declared that immigrants do not have the constitutional right to a
lawyer in a deportation hearing and thus have no right to appeal on the grounds
of bad legal representation. Mr. Mukasey overturned a decades-old practice
designed to ensure robust constitutional protection for immigrants — one needed
now more than ever in the days of the Bush administration’s assembly-line
The event at the Pentecostal church was organized by local ministers and
Democratic politicians to spur the cause of immigration reform this year.
It could be a difficult case to make. We heard far too little about the need for
immigration reform from President-elect Barack Obama during the general election
— and virtually nothing from the nation’s leaders since then. But the United
States cannot afford to put immigration on a back burner and merely continue
with the existing enforcement regime. The costs are too high for the country’s
values. And they are too high for the economy.
Defending immigrants’ rights defends standards in all workplaces. Workers who
are terrorized into submission, in families that are destroyed by deportation
and raids, are more likely to undercut other workers by tolerating low pay and
miserable job conditions.
Restoring proportionality and good sense to the criminal justice system also
would free up resources for fighting serious crimes. Most important, repairing a
system warped by political priorities into hunting down and punishing the wrong
people — like those bringing their suffering to a Pentecostal church — would
help restore a sense of what the country stands for, and remind us of who we
A Sense of Who We Are, NYT, 13.1.2009,