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Bilingual Education Column

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Rita Esquivel, director of the U.S. Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority-language affairs, seemed at a San Francisco meeting this month to be seeking a middle ground between groups that advocate bilingual education and those that believe immigrant children should receive intensive instruction in English.

Speaking at the annual convention of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Ms. Esquivel said the teaching of language-minority students is "too important a concern to be left to ideological and methodological debate." The aims of bilingual education and English instruction should be viewed as complementary, rather than competing, she said.

Challenging the rhetoric of groups espousing English as the country's "official" language, Ms. Esquivel said no organization in the field of bilingual education questions the importance of having immigrants learn English, "whatever the fear-mongers of language exclusivity might say."

She reminded her audience that "the primary purpose of bilingual education is to teach children English," but added that "there is absolutely nothing un-American about speaking more than one language."

The o.b.e.m.l.a. director, whose positive views on bilingual education contrast with positions taken by her predecessors in the Reagan Administration, began her speech by quipping, "It shows you what can happen in this great country of ours when the daughter of an immigrant can be a member of the Bush Administration."

As an organization, t.e.s.o.l. has gone on record as opposed to official-English laws. But one non-member attending the San Francisco conference claimed that many among the group's membership actually support efforts to have English declared as an official language.

Stanley Diamond, chairman of the group U.S. English, was in the audience as a panel of lawyers and educators criticized the official-English movement and official-English laws as being motivated by bigotry and intolerance.

In an audience-response segment of the presentation, Mr. Diamond accused the panel of proffering misinformation. "You would be surprised, in a polling of your own members," he said, "how many support our position." Mr. Diamond, whose group is seeking to have English declared the country's official language, did not offer specific data to back up his claims.

Two Massachusetts legislators have introduced bills that would eliminate mandatory bilingual-education programs in that state.

One bill, sponsored by Representative William Glodis of Worcester, would abolish bilingual education in Massachusetts. The other, sponsored by Representative Marilyn Travinski of Southbridge, would allow local communities to vote on bilingual-education programs and have the option of offering English as a second language instead.

The legislature's joint committee on education, arts, and the humanities is expected to recommend the establishment of a special commission to study these and other bills related to bilingual education.

U.S. Immigration officials say they are hoping the recent election defeat of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua may end the flow of refugees from that country to the United States. But they add that it is still too soon to know how developments in Managua will affect U.S. immigration policy.

Duke Austin, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said his agency is monitoring the political situation in Nicaragua and continues to accept applications for political asylum in the United States. He said the asylum claims of more than 80,000 Nicaraguans still are awaiting decisions, and that there "is no way to tell" how many others have entered the country illegally.

The influx of refugees and immigrants from Nicaragua has swamped school districts in the South and West. Dade County, Fla., recently reported that it enrolled more than 16,000 Nicaraguan students last year.

Nicaragua's new president, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, is scheduled to take office on April 25, having defeated Daniel Ortega in elections last month. Mr. Austin said his agency is hoping the change to a democratically elected government will remove reasons for seeking asylum.

Meanwhile, the loosening of emigration restrictions in the Soviet Union appear to be having repercussions in the United States. Several urban school districts here are coping with burgeoning populations of Soviet refugees, school officials and language instructors report.

According to Mr. Austin of the i.n.s., Jewish and Armenian Soviets are America's fastest-growing refugee population. The number allowed into the United States has increased from 3,000 in 1987 to 22,000 in 1988 and 38,000 last year.

The i.n.s. is prepared to take 50,000 Soviet refugees this year as part of the 125,000 grants of asylum it will give to refugees worldwide. But the agency still is not able to accommodate the full number of Soviet refugees who wish to travel here, Mr. Austin said.

Officials at the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement said most of the Soviets have been settling in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Portland, Ore.--ps

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