By Laura Vazquez, Program Manager, Immigration Initiatives, NCLR
Erie Neighborhood House has a long history of helping immigrants get integrated into American society.
NCLR Affiliates have a long history of assisting eligible permanent residents in applying for citizenship. For decades, our Affiliates have worked to integrate America’s newcomers by helping them learn English, apply for citizenship, and then assisting them with registering to vote so that they can fully participate in our democracy.
One such Affiliate is Erie Neighborhood House. Erie was originally founded in 1870 as a settlement house that served immigrants in Chicago. When Erie’s work began, Chicago’s immigrant communities were mostly Dutch, Norwegian, Swedish, and German.
Fast forward to 2017 and Erie is still working to incorporate immigrants into the strong communities that contribute to the vibrancy of Chicago. Its English classes are now made up of immigrants mainly from Latin America who came to Chicago for a better life as previous groups of immigrants have done.
In the coming weeks, as the full Senate begins debate on the immigration reform bill, you’re sure to be bombarded with a lot of information on immigration. Some of that information will have to do with immigrants’ interests in fully integrating into American society. While immigrants are often criticized for not wanting to integrate, we saw amendments filed during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s markup process that intend to actually make it harder for them by striping money from important immigrant integration programs. We need to send a message to Congress that more investments are needed for immigrant integration, not less!
One important measure of integration is learning English. While some may not realize it, one-third of Latino immigrants speak both English and Spanish. And for those who don’t yet speak English, the reality is that they do want to learn English. They want better jobs and better lives, and they understand that knowing English is vitally important to achieving those goals. In fact, a 2005 survey showed that 87% of undocumented immigrants would be willing to take ESL classes as part of their legalization process. The problem is not, as immigration reform detractors so often claim, a lack of will or drive to learn; it’s the lack of ESL classes available to the community. For the classes that are available, the wait-lists are often so long that interested students could wait more than three years. Add in the reduced federal funding of ESL and the problem is worsened.