During the last decade, the population of children entering U.S. schools unable to speak English grew by 40 percent. One in ten pre-K–12 students, a total of 5.3 million, are categorized as English Language Learners (ELLs). This large number of students is directly a result of the large wave of immigration over the last fifteen years. Those new immigrants gave birth to “new-Americans,” children born in the United States with full citizenship rights but born into non-English-speaking families. Therefore, the number of ELLs is not expected to diminish and is projected to increase by some 20 percent in the next decade. The achievement gap between them and their English-speaking peers has not contracted, with ELL students underperforming by 30 percent to 50 percent compared to their English-speaking white peers at almost every grade on national and state assessments. In almost all instances, this is the case even if you control for median family income and other indicators of social class. The education of ELL students in the United States need not remain a story of underachievement. Research points to effective methods for turning around their educational trajectory. Unfortunately, however, ELL policy remains mired in political ideology that restricts its potential and blocks its supposed intentions.
ELL education policy, which had evolved from the nativism of earlier periods, once again reflects the politics of xenophobia. We see this politics played out in aggressive state-level anti-immigration measures, the “birther” bill, restrictions on ethnic studies, and administrative actions to exclude teachers with Spanish accents as well as laws requiring English-only instruction. Although the increase in the number of children who do not speak English reflects immigration from Asia and Eastern Europe among other countries, it is the fear of the “other” along the southern border that has made language policy a battleground. Especially in states in the Southwest, where Latinos promise to become both the numeric and voting majority, immigration and language policy respond to anxieties about demographic change and the impact of the economic meltdown that has devastated many U.S. communities. In this sense, Latinos have become the latest scapegoats in the displacement of cultural and economic worries on immigrants. Where once citizens worried about the Irish, the Chinese, and southern and eastern Europeans, now it is the “Mexicans.”
Although other Latino populations on the East Coast, particularly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, have added to ELL population growth, the wave of Mexican immigration to all regions of the country has generated increased policy attention to ELL and immigrant issues. In Arizona, my home, immigrants have been blamed for the state budget crisis, crime, forest fires, and almost all “problems” within the state. Directing blame onto immigrants is a time-honored way to deflect the public from the rea...
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