Make Americans of Them


December 08, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

TULSA, OKLAHOMA — Tulsa, Oklahoma. -- "How do you feel about educating the children of illegal immigrants?'' was the first question I was asked after making a speech at Tulsa Junior College one recent night. I thought the question was really about how I felt about paying for immigrant kids in public schools.

''Fine,'' I said. ''As long as it's in English.''

There was a lot of applause, which led me to believe the question was not about money and was not anti-immigrant. It was pro-American, which is what I consider myself.

I think bilingualism is about as bad an idea as any that has surfaced in the United States during the past 30 years -- a ridiculous scheme that will turn second-generation Americans into second-class citizens. I assume that if people take the trouble and the trauma to get to America, legally or illegally, they do it because they want to be Americans -- or they want their children to be Americans.

Contradictory studies about the effectiveness of bilingual education, of which I have read several, do not impress me at all, because I do not see this as an educational issue. It is a political issue. The United States is what it is today -- as opposed to, say, Yugoslavia -- because we all became Americans, often under duress.

It was not all pretty. Native Americans were almost destroyed because they were in the way, African Americans came in chains, Southerners were killed for trying to get out, German Americans were jailed for speaking their native language in World War I, and Japanese Americans were put in concentration camps in World War II. But we're all still here, most doing tolerably well.

I live in the most bilingual of U.S. cities, Los Angeles. The question in Tulsa was a few years behind L.A. dialogue on immigration and bilingualism. The president of the Los Angeles Board of Education, an impressive woman named Leticia Quezada who came here from Mexico at the age of 13, speaking no English, believes that non-citizens, legal or illegal, should have the right to vote in board elections, because the schools are filled mostly by their children.

''Immigrants'' in Los Angeles is a euphemism for Hispanic Americans (or Latinos) from Mexico and Central America. The top 10 foreign languages in LEP (Limited English Proficiency) programs statewide are Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Hmong, Cambodian, Filipino, Korean, Lao, Armenian and Mandarin -- but more than three out of four LEP students are Hispanic. There is a great irony there, because the one people the European Americans drove out of the country by force were the Mexicans, who once held legal sovereignty over California, Texas and parts of the Southwest.

Well, they're back. Although students entering Los Angeles elementary schools speak more than 50 different foreign languages at home, two-thirds of all students have Spanish as a first language. More than half of Los Angeles County public school students are in bilingual programs. LEP programs, usually, involve a day divided between teaching of all subjects in the foreign language and a long session of intensive English instruction -- for, according to regulations, ''a few years.''

As far as I can tell, looking at public elementary schools, including the one attended by my 7-year-old daughter, it amounts to de facto segregation, with the Latinos in one place and the Anglos in another.

South of L.A. in Orange County, LEP students account for 27 percent of total enrollment. To the north, in Ventura County, the percentage is 16. One out of three children in the state of California speaks a language other than English at home, and the number of school districts with extensive LEP programs has almost quadrupled to more than 700 in the past five years.

The cost of bilingual education is in the billions and climbing. Most of it is spent on teachers -- Leticia Quezada has a master's degree in bilingual education -- and most of it is wasted, in my opinion. But again, that is not the point. No matter what the intentions, being dazzling in a foreign language but halting in English is a formula for washing dishes and digging ditches. These kids, I think, want to be Americans, not strangers in a strange land called America.

It happened that just after I was in Tulsa, my wife and I spent a weekend in Mexico, in Ensenada, where I had last been 15 years ago. The biggest change for me was the way young Mexicans spoke English. Not that they spoke it -- it's a tourist area, after all -- but how they spoke it now. Many had American accents, even if they had never been in the United States. Their English teacher was named television.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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