View From Lodi, CA: Immigrants Won't Learn English. Washington Doesn't Care.

I have to give the devil his due. I stand in awe of Vicente Fox's relentless, full-court pressure for amnesty for Mexican illegal immigrants. And I remain slack-jawed at Bush's willingness to risk political suicide by resurrecting amnesty time and again, despite the disapproval of the American people.

On a personal note, however, at least amnesty might bolster the attendance in my English as a second Language [ESL] courses – for a while.

During the 1980s amnesty, green card applicants were required complete 40 hours of English instruction. Suddenly, my ESL classes went from less than half full to a point where people were bringing their own folding chairs.

Classes were jammed. As a newcomer to teaching, I was enthusiastic about the turnout. How wonderful, I thought, that all these prospective U.S. citizens were so eager to learn English.

My bubble burst within a week. When students completed 40 hours to the minute, they presented their INS forms for my confirming signature attesting to their attendance.

At first, I balked. In the fine print, the form also said that the student had to demonstrate a mastery of conversational English and a basic understanding of U.S. history and government.

My students couldn't answer the questions: "When did you arrive in the U.S.?" and "Where is the capital of the U.S.?"

I refused to sign a federal document that made a false statement. I suggested instead that some students remain in class. After all, I reasoned, they were going to live the rest of their lives in the U.S. Why not spend a few hours a week at Adult Ed to learn your new language?

Within another week, I had my second awakening. I received a telephone call from an INS official asking me why I wasn't signing the forms. When I explained my reasoning, he responded curtly: "Sign them."

My immigrant students, instead of returning for the extra instruction they so badly needed, had complained.

After a few months, the last of the amnesty crowd completed their minimum requirement. Our classes dwindled back down to their earlier levels.

In an ironic twist, dedicated students who had been attending every day stopped coming when they received the "Certificate of Completion." To them too, the class ended with that document.

Looking back, I wonder why the government chose 40 hours. About one-third of my ESL students have never been inside a classroom. And among those who have had some education, most cannot speak English.

Why wouldn't the government impose a meaningful time period? Forty weeks of instruction would have made more sense. If U.S. citizenship isn't worth 10 months in the classroom, then citizenship isn't very important.

My experiences were nearly 15 years ago. Many ESL students have come and gone during that decade and a half.

I'm still at my desk every night eager and willing to teach those who want to learn. And, thankfully, I have some faithful students.

Those who work hard are rewarded. The best of them have gone beyond ESL to complete their GED – which says they have the equivalent of a high school diploma.

But I no longer have any illusions. The Lodi Adult School offers 15 sections of Adult ESL in all corners of town at all hours of the day and evening. Every resident lives within walking distance of an ESL class. But too many are unwilling, literally, to walk across the street to learn English.

I'm not saying that it's easy. Sometimes life gets in the way. And mastering a new language is a challenge. But in most areas of the diverse San Joaquin Valley, ESL classes should have a waiting list instead of empty seats.

I've noticed an inverse relationship between the number of immigrants who come to California and the number of students who enroll in class. Learning English is only important to a handful of newcomers.

Who knows? Maybe if Bush prevails and amnesty passes, no English requirement will be imposed. Since Bush speaks Spanish at every opportunity, he must not think learning English is important either.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly newspaper column since 1988. This column is exclusive to VDARE.COM.