Image: Immigrants and supporters rally
Mary Altaffer  /  AP
Immigrants and their supporters demonstrate during a march 18 rally to protest New York city cuts to programs that teach English as a second language
updated 3/22/2009 2:36:58 PM ET 2009-03-22T18:36:58

Farzana Morshed arrived from Bangladesh three years ago without any real grasp of English. Her husband had to help her open a bank account, an interpreter was necessary when she needed medical care and she couldn't go anywhere by herself for fear of getting lost.

Morshed soon got the language lessons she needed through her local library and a community-based nonprofit organization, and her English is good enough that she can work as an interpreter at a hospital.

But other immigrants around the country are worried that they won't have the same chance as Morshed because states are slashing budgets for adult literacy classes — an important lifeline in immigrant communities.

The New York state budget proposed by Gov. David Paterson would cut three programs that contain an English education component. The proposed budget takes funding for the three programs from nearly $13 million down to $8.6 million, a cut of about 33 percent.

Cuts in adult literacy programs
At the city level, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's budget proposal doesn't include two City Council streams of funding that support teaching English, said Anthony Ng, deputy director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses. Those programs currently receive almost $7 million.

It's an issue in other parts of the country as well, said Margie McHugh, co-director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy at the Migration Policy Institute. She said there is great concern in several states that budget shortfalls will cause cutbacks in adult literacy programs, noting that it already has happened in California.

Immigrants in New York hope the money will be restored by the time the state and city budgets are finalized. The city programs also were not included in Bloomberg's proposals in previous years, but they were added in during the budget process, Ng said, although not at the funding levels advocates hoped to see.

At a rally Wednesday at a park in the Jackson Heights section of Queens, immigrants spoke out against the funding cuts and carried signs reading "Rebuild, Invest in Adult Literacy" and "More Education for Parents, Better Future for Children."

Among them was Gustavo Medina, 72, wearing a top hat his granddaughter made for him that said "We Want To Learn."

The Colombian immigrant has been taking English classes for the past year, and hopes enough funding will be there for another year. He works cleaning restaurants at John F. Kennedy International Airport and learning English would help him find a better job with a better income.

And that, he said, would be good for the country, since a higher income would have him pay more in taxes. "If I learn English, more money for Uncle Sam," he said.

Resources outstripped by demand
Advocates say the resources for teaching English to immigrants already are vastly outstripped by demand. At the Shorefront YM-YWHA of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, several hundred students are taking English classes at any given time and easily that many more are on a waiting list.

Susan Fox, executive director of Shorefront, said immigrants are eager to learn English, recognizing how vital it is not only for economic advancement but to be fully engaged in life in the United States.

"Every cut in the adult literacy world will mean fewer people helped," she said.

In California, those cuts are a reality. Adult education there is run through two systems, community colleges and programs administered by school districts, said Matthew Smith, president of the California Council of Adult Education.

The recently approved state budget cut funds for adult education run by school districts by 15 percent and an additional 5 percent cut is coming, he said. Also, whatever funds districts do receive can be used at their discretion, so they could decide to use the money to plug holes in their K-12 programs and not fund adult programs at all, Smith said.

"It is that bad here," he said.

Classes important during recession
Immigrants and advocates say the need for language classes is especially important during an economic downturn. Like everyone else, immigrants are trying to improve their skills to remain competitive in the job market.

"At a time when immigrant communities are going to need these services the most, they're lessening," said Deycy Avitia, coordinator of education advocacy for the New York Immigration Coalition.

Avitia hopes federal stimulus money coming to the state will make a difference, and said advocates would be pushing to make sure immigrant communities were not ignored when decisions are made on how to spend those funds.

For Morshed, her newfound knowledge of English has changed her life. The first time she translated for a patient at her hospital, "I was feeling like 'Oh wow, my world is so big now,'" she said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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