The City Council has approved a $5-million increase to its upcoming budget to fund English language classes at the numerous community service centers, schools and libraries that host free classes for immigrants hoping to learn English.
Now, most applicants to the courses are turned away, due to a lack of space and instructors.
“There is a myth out there that immigrants don’t want to learn English. That’s simply not true,” said K.C. Williams, director of the education program at the Jackson Heights office of the Forest Hills Community House.
Williams said public funding of English classes for immigrants is not a new initiative. Decades ago her own grandfather, an immigrant from Sicily, took a course similar to what is offered today.
“The first generation is often the lost generation,” she said, explaining that for the immigrants who make the move to come to this country, transition can be very hard.
It’s often the children of those immigrants who benefit most from the opportunities in the United States that their parents sought.
Williams said she sees all types of people applying, via lottery, for the chance to take the classes she oversees. Last year her office served people from 47 countries speaking 17 different languages.
Many of those people are not, by trade, manual laborers, though those are often the jobs they are forced to take in America, due to their lack of English-speaking skills.
Williams says she knows journalists, doctors, physicists, dentists and engineers—all working as office cleaners or doing other forms of unskilled work.
City Councilman John Sabini described his support of the funding by saying “immigrants built and continue to build this city.”
City Council Speaker Peter Vallone has also been supportive. “We cannot bring immigrants in and then leave them behind. We must lift them up.”
The Jackson Heights Office of the Forest Hills House does not advertise its English classes, and yet it has long lines of hopeful students who show up on registration day, hoping to be enrolled in a course.
“It’s purely word-of-mouth,” Williams said.
She does admit that a number of those taking English classes are probably in the country illegally. She said her policy is not to ask whether they are documented or not.
Many oppose the use of public money to fund programs for illegal aliens.
“Their children go to school here,” Williams said in explanation of her center’s “don’t ask” policy.
She also added that every time anyone makes a purchase at a store in New York City they pay sales tax, which should entitle them to some services.
Also, many times, due to their lack of English, immigrants are unaware of public assistance programs they may be legally entitled to.
Williams said that by investing in these non-English speakers, New York City is really investing in its own betterment.
The recently released 2000 Census figures show that 120,000 new immigrants move to New York City each year. That number is widely believed to be a serious undercount, as most undocumented aliens either don’t receive census forms or are afraid to answer any questions about their presence in the country.
The city’s current English language class funding only supports 10,000 classroom slots for adults through the Board of Education, the City University of New York, public libraries and the Department of Youth and Community Development.
Demand, the current system estimates, is in the hundreds of thousands.
The $5-million increase in City Council funds will add more than 3,300 classroom slots. The council is also requesting that the state increase its funding by $10 million, which it estimates will help serve an additional 5,000 immigrants.
“Without offering real opportunity to thousands of foreigners who make New York City their home, we are endangering our city’s future,” Sabini said.
“They came here for the American dream. They want to be able to help their children with their homework,” Williams said. “These are strong people. And they come out of this program, which is very intensive, speaking English.”