I have always been pretty in favor of legal immigration. The most relevant immigration debate in America, of course, is Mexican immigration. The “data” shows that immigrants provide a benefit to the American economy as a whole. Any claims of job-stealing seems to be overpowered by the net impact immigrants have on the overall economy. Most importantly, the immigrants themselves are so much better off that any employment loss to natural-born Americans seems to be trivial from an overall human welfare standpoint. But I have come to see a different side of Mexican immigration in my current job. First hand I can see the frictions that widespread Mexican immigration can cause in a city like Austin.

75% or so of the students at my school are Hispanic, almost all second or first generation Mexican immigrants. What this means is that a significant portion of the students have parents that know little to no English. This means that communication between the teachers/faculty and parents can be very difficult. It also means that the kids are learning an English that is dumbed-down and almost never reading English.

The school of course accommodates this by providing bilingual classes and sending any note home in English and Spanish. But the English illiteracy is probably the greatest hurdle to overcome in the Title I school where I work. While the children are relatively competent at math operations, when it comes to word problems they can do almost nothing. “Plot” as in “plot the coordinates on the grid” means something totally different than “plot” as in the direction of a story. Without speaking anything close to academic English outside of school, how are they supposed to pick up on this difference?

The important thing for policy is how to adapt to this. It makes sense to have bilingual classes. But it crossed my mind that this gives too much of a coddling atmosphere to immigrants. Move to America and don’t worry if you don’t try your best to learn English – the “system” will take care of it. The public school system is obviously largely funded by the parents not sending their kids to these bad schools. Is it right for immigrants to be able to move to America and assume that public schools will do everything they can to make sure your kid can get by in an English-speaking America? The alternative I suppose would be to do everything at school in English. No flexibility for Spanish speakers. You can’t use dictionaries on standardized tests, we won’t have bilingual classes, and if you don’t get the English we’re speaking you better do something about it.

This would inevitably cause some kids who are so illiterate in English to just totally get discouraged and lose all hope. Inevitably these kids end up being picked up by “the system” anyways through welfare and what not. I think this would be bad and pretty wrong from a social justice perspective.

But the fact still remains – the lack of English proficiency of the students at my school is the source of a tremendous amount of resources and teacher-time. Is it right for any immigrant to move to America – legally or not – and expect the government-run system of public schools to totally acclimate their children and prepare them to be successful in an English-speaking America?