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School-Funding Cuts Close Off One Path to Citizenship

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After living in the United States for nearly 20 years, Pedro Soto is getting ready to take his citizenship test.

To prepare himself, the Mexican native attends a citizenship class two nights a week at Garfield High School in Los Angeles. He is learning about the government and history of the United States, finding out how to apply for citizenship, and getting instruction in what his responsibilities and rights will be as a citizen.

"It's going to make a difference to become a citizen,'' Mr. Soto said. "I can't say I'm going to make it, but the classes are helping a lot.''

Mr. Soto is among an estimated three million formerly undocumented immigrants across the nation who qualified for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The landmark law enabled illegal aliens who could prove they were living in the United States before 1982 to begin the long process of becoming naturalized citizens.

Over the next two years, those applicants, like Mr. Soto, will become eligible to become U.S. citizens.

Unlike Mr. Soto, however, many may not be getting the extra educational help they may need to cross the final hurdle on the path to citizenship, according to immigration experts.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, which last month announced an ambitious new effort to help prepare an estimated 280,000 amnesty applicants for their citizenship tests, is among only a handful of large, urban school districts nationwide that are stepping up their educational programs to meet the needs of this large group of immigrants.

At a time when millions of immigrants may need the kind of help Mr. Soto is getting in Los Angeles, experts say, federal and state funds to support such efforts are drying up. And, in some cities with large immigrant populations, such as New York, Dallas, and San Antonio, school-run programs to aid these amnesty applicants have already ended, or will soon be closed down.

For many such immigrants, experts believe, the lack of educational and outreach services could mean the difference between becoming a citizen or continuing to live on the edge of society. Many do not know they are eligible for citizenship. Others will need some formal instruction in order to pass their citizenship test.

"There are important reasons why we ought to be taking this more seriously,'' warned David Rosenberg, a principal consultant for New American Strategies, a Massachusetts-based immigration-consulting firm. "It is not in our [national] interest to have large numbers of people permanently outside our institutions.''

A History of School Involvement

While most citizenship-education programs are provided by community-based groups, school districts have long played an active role in such efforts. Los Angeles's citizenship programs, the oldest among the nation's school districts, date back more than 100 years.

All such programs received a boost, however, with the passage of the 1986 immigration law. Under the law, formerly undocumented immigrants can become permanent, legal residents--the first step toward citizenship--either by successfully completing a 40-hour course that includes instruction in English, U.S. history, and the American political system, or by passing a test.

The law also provided for up to $4 billion in federal funds to assist states in helping amnesty applicants become naturalized. The funds, known as "state legalization impact assistance grants,'' were to be used for a variety of purposes for this group, ranging from public-health services to education.

According to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which administers the grant program, states have thus far spent nearly $600 million of the funds for education.

The law provided that undocumented aliens could apply to become legal residents and then had to wait at least 18 months, during which time they would take their class or test to achieve that status. They then had to wait another five years before becoming eligible for citizenship.

The problem is that immigrants who have reached the five-year mark can no longer be counted when states seek the federal funding, and many states have no special funding to support a final citizenship-education effort aimed at this group.

"Here's a case where the federal government has written a law that promises students or adults they will be able to go through the process and become citizens, but they don't provide the funding for them to do it,'' said Domingo A. Rodriguez, who coordinates the Los Angeles school district's amnesty program.

Federal lawmakers from California, which has more immigrants than any other state in the nation, are currently lobbying their colleagues in Congress for an increase in the federal grant program.

A Focus on Citizenship

At its peak three years ago, however, the program spawned a great deal of educational activity aimed at amnesty applicants.

The new programs were distinct from the English-as-a-second-language courses many school districts already offered to adult immigrants. In most cases, the English classes had long waiting lists, and they addressed citizenship only in the context of teaching English.

The amnesty-inspired programs also differed from efforts of 70 years ago that sought to "Americanize'' the large influx of immigrants entering the nation at that time.

"Americanization incorporated, beyond naturalization, survival skills,'' Mr. Rosenberg said. "There were even sewing circles and a certain amount of value-laden instruction.''

"Today, we would think they were not fully respectful of the cultural aspects of people in the program,'' he added.

The emphasis in the newer programs is on English-language instruction and U.S. government and history. Students are also taught what their rights and responsibilities are as citizens and how to gain access to government agencies for such practical purposes as getting their children the educational services they need or writing their representatives in Congress.

Mr. Rosenberg said the new focus stems, in part, from the involvement of community groups in immigrant-education.

"The increase in immigration began in the 1960's, and enough people have been here long enough that, rather than be focused on immediate issues of survival, they're now beginning to focus on how they can better serve their communities,'' he said.

Moreover, said Marc Granowitter, a research associate for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, community groups began to see in these new immigrants an opportunity to increase their political power and the educational programs have come to reflect that intent.

The task of providing those educational programs, however, has proved to be a major challenge.

For example, curricular materials geared to the very basic reading levels of immigrants have been difficult to find. The federal government has published a set of three citizenship textbooks, but, for the most part, immigrant-education experts said, there has been a dearth of adequate course materials for this population.

"It's really become very much a forgotten part of the curriculum,'' said Saeed Ali, the director of government relations for Community College Educators of New Californians, which is lobbying to give such efforts a more permanent footing in the state's education system.

"It's more than history or civics,'' he said. "The materials we have do not even take up a whole shelf.''

In Los Angeles, whose large influx of immigrants is leading some to dub it the new "Ellis Island,'' adult-education program coordinators also found that 27 percent of the amnesty students were not even literate in their native language, which, for most, was Spanish. Thus, the district was forced to produce new course materials geared to teach those students first how to read and write in Spanish before going on to English or citizenship instruction.

How Much Is Enough?

Despite such difficulties, a wide variety of programs geared up to help amnesty applicants meet the 40-hour requirement for citizenship and English instruction. Some school systems, such as Dade County, Fla., went even further, providing a 100-hour course of study for the new immigrants.

The question now, immigrant-education experts say, is whether those efforts of themselves were enough to help amnesty applicants become citizens.

Spokesmen for school districts in some cities, for example, said their districts have no plans to expand or revive their citizenship programs for this group because the courses have already done an adequate job of preparing students for the citizenship exam. Moreover, they add, immigrants can continue to get some citizenship instruction through English-as-a-second-language classes.

However, Esmer Wear, who directs the Dallas Independent School District's amnesty program, contends that those educators may be assuming too much.

"I think they are overestimating their students' abilities,'' she said. "We have been forecasting this need ever since the immigration law was passed, but adult basic-education programs are already hard-pressed for money, and we cannot provide these additional services.''

"There is no way you can become literate in another language in 40 hours,'' Ms. Wear continued. "In order to become a citizen, you have to read, speak, and write well enough to answer the questions that are required of you.''

Moreover, she noted, officials from the Immigration and Naturalization Service who administer the citizenship tests have wide latitude in choosing the questions they ask potential citizens, making thorough preparation all the more important.

Some examiners for the immigration service have been known to ask applicants such inordinately difficult questions as: "Who was the 30th President of the United States and what was his wife's name?''

In an effort to prevent examiners from asking such unfair questions, the agency has published a list of 100 questions that examiners may ask of applicants for citizenship. It also contracted with two testing companies to produce standardized examinations, some of which are now widely used.

To Los Angeles school officials, Mr. Rodriguez said, it was also clear early on that their amnesty students would need more than 40 hours of instruction focused mainly on learning English.

The citizenship programs being expanded now will include an additional 60 hours of instruction for students and will emphasize citizenship.

"We know these are needed because 97 percent of the students who take the citizenship classes pass the exams,'' Mr. Rodriguez said. Nationwide, experts say, the passage rates for the test, while still high, fall well below that figure.

Part of the reason for Los Angeles's intensive efforts is that the district has one of the largest concentrations of foreign-born residents in the nation. An estimated 1.7 million undocumented immigrants live in Los Angeles County and have not applied for citizenship.

During the peak years following passage of the immigration law, some of the district's amnesty programs operated up to 24 hours a day, according to Mr. Rodriguez.

He said the newly expanded citizenship programs will cost the financially strapped district $22 million over the next five years--almost all of it in local funds.

A 'Long-Term' Issue

However, immigrant-education experts believe the need for expanded education efforts aimed at new immigrants is not limited to Los Angeles, or to the "blip'' of amnesty applicants coming through the system now.

Besides the three million amnesty applicants, they note, an estimated 10 million more noncitizen adults are currently living in the United States, and more are entering the country each day.

"There is a tremendous need for resources for these education services, and there's plenty of work to go around for everyone,'' Mr. Rosenberg said. "This is a long-term issue that is not going to go away.''

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