Orange County has a severe shortage of classroom space for newly legalized aliens seeking permanent resident status under the 1986 immigration reform law, a high-ranking immigration official said Thursday.
“Orange County is probably the (worst) in terms of available seats,” said Dona L. Coultice, the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s associate director of immigration reform in the Western region.
Coultice said established schools that will be offering English and civics classes to aliens can provide space for about 52,000 students, leaving an estimated 57,000 more out of luck. In Los Angeles County, which had a much higher number of amnesty applicants, the shortfall is about 66,000.
About 130,000 aliens received temporary resident status through Orange County’s three legalization offices during the first phase of the amnesty program, which ended in May, Coultice said. Most of them must either complete an accredited course in English and in U.S. government and history or pass a proficiency exam in those subjects to gain permanent-resident status and remain eligible for citizenship.
Some aliens are exempt from the requirements because of their age or because they have attended U.S. schools.
Coultice’s comments came at a half-day public hearing at the Hall of Administration in Santa Ana on the impact the landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 has had on the county.
More than 20 speakers representing agriculture, labor, social and health care service agencies, local government and school districts addressed a panel established by the Orange County Human Relations Commission and the Hispanic Development Council of United Way.
The panel includes religious, government, business and community leaders. It will consider the testimony given Thursday and issue a report early next year with findings and recommendations.
Coultice said the INS hopes that the 15-question proficiency exam, which is being field-tested, will relieve pressure on community groups and local school districts offering English classes. Coultice said the test will include questions along the lines of “What colors are on the American flag?” and “Who was the first U.S. president?”
But forum moderator Ramon Curiel said he doubts that many aliens would avail themselves of the opportunity to take the exam because it may be perceived as a more difficult way of meeting requirements of the second phase of the new law.
Coultice, however, said people had underestimated the initiative of aliens applying for amnesty before. She said 80% of first-phase applicants applied directly to the INS rather than through lawyers or church groups, despite widespread predictions that they would be too frightened to seek help from a government agency that once sought to deport them.
“The fear factor was not as great as people thought,” Coultice said.