Immigrant issues back on states' ballots

In a high school classroom, Xavier Chavez is trying to teach a group of teenagers about Manifest Destiny – the 19th-century belief that the U.S. was fated to stretch from sea to sea.

But these students are children of immigrants, and they first have to learn English. They might soon have to learn it faster if Oregon voters approve a ballot measure in November to limit the time students can spend in English as a Second Language classes.

The proposal, modeled after similar laws in California, Arizona and Massachusetts, is one of a handful of immigration-related ballot measures that will appear this fall on state and local ballots across the nation.

A year ago, groups that wanted to crack down on illegal immigration had hoped to push the topic front-and-center in the presidential campaign.

But the issue has simmered down nationally, particularly since both major presidential candidates have endorsed a “path to citizenship” for the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

Now the immigration battles in November will be fought on ballots in Oregon, Missouri and California.

There are 64,000 non-English speakers enrolled in Oregon's public schools, the vast majority of whom are Spanish speakers. The proposal would limit high school students to two years of ESL classes, even less for younger students.

Chavez and his fellow teachers acknowledge that most of their students pick up colloquial English within two years, giving them enough fluency to answer a text message or order a slice of pizza.

Faculty members worry instead about academic English – the skills that will let students succeed in advanced classes, whether they are deconstructing Beowulf or reciting the principles of photosynthesis.

The initiative is “a diversion to the real problems,” Chavez said. “We are not looking at what English language learners need. We are just looking to take away. Let's talk about the quality of instruction.”

Bill Sizemore, sponsor of the Oregon measure and the GOP's gubernatorial nominee in 1998, said the measure was intended to help immigrants.

He said schools warehouse students in ESL courses for longer than necessary to keep federal and state funds flowing. If the change is approved, students will join the mainstream faster with the tools they need to compete, he said.