The Lesson of a Lifetime : Amnesty Seekers Race the Clock to Learn English

Times Staff Writer

The farm laborers’ voices rose in ethereal unison from beneath the stand of willow trees, mingling with the whoosh from a nearby rushing stream to produce an unlikely early-morning recital amid the brush of northern San Diego County.

“Let it be, let it be,” the men sang, clearly unaccustomed to the English words, their tentative pronunciation merging with the taped voice of Paul McCartney. “There will be an answer, let it be.”

A few days later, in a Catholic center in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, a different group, mostly women, recited the U. S. Pledge of Allegiance, tripping over many of the words.

Both groups, composed exclusively of people born in Mexico and Central America, are enrolled in church-sponsored English classes--the agricultural workers in a shaded, open-air site in Rancho Penasquitos, the others in a makeshift classroom in the barrio.


With the government’s amnesty program entering its decisive second stage, community organizations, colleges and other concerned groups nationwide are gearing up to provide English instruction to more than 1 million one-time illegal

aliens who now qualify for the general amnesty program because they have lived in the United States since 1982.

The instruction, such as the classes sponsored by Catholic Community Services in Rancho Penasquitos and in Barrio Logan, is critical.

Under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which created the amnesty program, applicants must demonstrate a basic knowledge of U.S. civics and a “minimal” understanding of English before qualifying for permanent U.S. residence--the much-coveted “green card” status that allows foreigners to live and work in the United States. Exempt from the language and civics requirements are amnesty applicants who were younger than 16 or older than 65 when they applied, as well as applicants who have already had one year of formal schooling in the United States.


Those who fail to comply with the requirement will eventually pay a high price: They will revert to illegal status, signaling a return to their previous shadow existence, always subject to deportation.

Because many applicants clearly will not have the required English and civics knowledge, Congress provided another avenue. They may comply by demonstrating that they are “satisfactorily pursuing” a government-certified course that provides the needed instruction. (Although final regulations are not yet available, the INS is expected to require that applicants have completed at least 30 hours of a 60-hour course.)

Thus, the sudden great demand for English and civics courses. Of the 1.7 million general amnesty applicants nationwide, 1.2 million will require instruction, one national Latino group estimates.

The federal government is providing the states with about $1 billion to offset the education bill and other costs associated with amnesty, and there is widespread concern that the money may be insufficient and may arrive too late. Nonetheless, classes are proceeding.

“We’re hiring teachers as fast as we can,” said Leann Howard, a resource instructor for the continuing education centers of the San Diego Community College system.

Enrollment in English-as-a-second-language courses at community college continuing education centers is up 40% to 50% this year in San Diego County, largely because of the amnesty applicants, said officials, who added that they have hired 50 more teachers. As of September, Howard said, 3,200 amnesty applicants had enrolled in the classes.

Elsewhere in the United States, notably in Los Angeles and other cities in California, experts have expressed grave doubts that an already overburdened educational system will be able to meet the great demand for more instruction. There is fear that many will miss out on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of amnesty simply because of a lack of classroom space.

“At this point we believe that a substantial percentage of people legalized are facing the possibility of not having a class to go to,” said Charles Kamasaki, director of policy analysis for the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based Latino advocacy group.


In San Diego, however, officials, educators and community groups seem confident that schools and other organizations will be able to meet the demand. The U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 25,000 general-amnesty applicants will need course instruction in the county. The remaining 15,000 or so amnesty seekers in San Diego will either meet the requirements without need for classes or will be exempt, officials say.

“I don’t see any shortage here,” said James Turnage, the INS district director in San Diego. “Right from the start, our sense of this has been that we’ll be able to meet the needs of this group without any problem.”

San Diego Capacity

Community representatives, although more circumspect, agree that sufficient classroom space appears to be available. A key difference between San Diego and Los Angeles, of course, is scale: Several hundred thousand amnesty applicants are expected to pursue courses in the Los Angeles area.

“I am optimistic that San Diego County, through a cooperative effort, will have sufficient capacity,” said Carol Rogoff Hallstrom, coordinator of the San Diego Law Coalition, which is composed of more than a dozen community groups working on the issue.

However, Hallstrom and others noted that enrollment will have to be watched closely in coming months to avoid the kind of crush that is already developing in Los Angeles. Amnesty seekers have a total of 30 months from the time they apply for legal status to complete the course requirement.

Confusing the process somewhat, community groups say, is the fact that the INS has yet to release its final regulations governing the course of instruction and the amount of classroom time that applicants will need. Those guidelines are expected to be made public in a matter of days. Meantime, schools and community groups are proceeding with classes, anticipating eventual INS certification.

“In terms of trying to design a curriculum, I sometimes feel like a yo-yo here,” said Robert Moser, assistant director for resettlement and immigration with Catholic Community Services in San Diego. “It’s very difficult to tell your teachers what to expect . . . . I think there is some tension and pressures on the system that could have been avoided with a more cautious and rational implementation.”


Budding of Profiteers Is Feared

There is concern that any void in classes will be quickly filled by profiteers charging undue tuitions for questionable instruction. Fanning those fears is the fact that the INS has been unwilling to establish a maximum tuition for the classes. (Public schools and community groups provide the instruction free or for nominal fees.)

“We feel that there’s a real opportunity for unscrupulous providers to take advantage of the community,” said Hallstrom.

The INS says it intends to closely monitor any groups that it certifies to provide amnesty-related instruction. “We’re going to keep our ears to the ground on this,” said the INS’ Turnage.

In Rancho Penasquitos each Saturday morning, a group of several dozen farm workers gathers beneath a stand of willow trees to learn the language that has confounded them. Before class on a recent morning, Father Christopher Merris from nearby Our Lady of Mt. Carmel church offers services at a makeshift altar. At the site, workers, most of whom live in the neighboring brush, have erected a wooden cross and a tile shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, revered patroness of Latin America. Before Mass, the men sweep the creek bottom clean with handmade brooms.

Focus on ‘Survival English’

The bilingual teacher, Paula Hoffman-Villanueva, has to improvise in this most rustic setting. She holds a small chalkboard and attaches pieces of paper to bushes with clotheslines and sticks. Words are spelled phonetically to facilitate learning. She calls it “survival English,” stressing simple phrases and numbers that will help students count in English.

“It’s important for us to learn the language,” explains Andres Roman Diaz, a 49-year-old native of the Mexican state of Guerrero. Three of his sons work alongside him in the fields of North County. “It helps us to look for work, to ask for things in the store.”

The teacher asks the men to write some of the phrases they would like to know in English.

“I want to know how to ask, Where does the bus go?” writes one man, who added a volley of other useful sentences in pencil: “I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I don’t have any money. I don’t have anyplace to sleep.”

All the men seemed eager to learn. “It’s indispensable,” said David Rivera, 19, a native of Mexico City. “A lot of Americans think we’re stupid, just because we don’t speak the language. They get upset with us. They don’t understand.”

Among the men are a number of Mam and Kanjobal Indians from Guatemala. “I think the English will help us to better ourselves,” said Anacleto Vicente, 23, from the Guatemalan province of Queztaltenango.

Many of the men at the class are undocumented. Others are beneficiaries under the farm worker amnesty program, which has requirements different from the general-amnesty initiative. Although farm-worker amnesty applicants need not study English to qualify for permanent residence, Catholic Community Services, which sponsors the classes, has decided to go ahead with the instruction here nonetheless. Workers fear, however, that the hostility of nearby residents, mostly non-Latino, could threaten the classes and the religious services, even though sponsors have the landowner’s permission.

“We’ve already had to move three times,” said Gina Velazquez, a volunteer teacher and area resident who is well aware of the uneasy relations between migrant workers and the area’s mostly middle-class population. “These men aren’t in control of their lives; they are forced here by circumstances. Yet I see qualities in them that are a lot more profound than I see in some of the people who are always trying to insult them.”

At the end of the lesson, the men join in singing the words of John Lennon and McCartney, words that somehow seem appropriate to the setting and the predicament of these men. “I always like to end my classes with singing,” explains Hoffman-Villanueva.

A few days later, Hoffman-Villanueva leads another class, this time mostly women, at the Padre Serra Center in Barrio Logan. Most are amnesty applicants who will have to complete a course before receiving green cards. Again, the teacher stresses practical English, such as the counting of coins. But there is also a civics component here, as students are attempting to learn the Pledge of Allegiance and the meaning of the U. S. flag.

At the phrase “liberty and justice for all,” there is some debate. “We know that there’s not always justice for us,” says Linda Vallejo, 34, a former teacher from Mexico City who is present at the class along with her bubbly 2-year-old, Zayra.

But, she explains afterward, “there’s more justice here than in Mexico . . . . There are more opportunities for us here. If I learn English, I can do a lot more to help my people here.”