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Huddled masses yearning to learn free

U.S. immigrants interact during an English class

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: The immigration debate may be gone from Capitol Hill but it's most definitely not forgotten by the people it will affect most. Most undocumented immigrants in this country are thought to have poor English skills. And they're worried about rumors that when it does come an immigration bill will require English proficiency. Both to fit into society and to get ahead in the workplace.

Jessie Graham reports from Brooklyn, if you want to learn English you're gonna have to go the end of a very, very long line.

JESSIE GRAHAM: It's Ghyslin Louis Jeune's first day of English class.

Teacher: Worked. Everyone:

Class: Worked.

Teacher: Liked.

Class: Liked.

Teacher: Helped.

Class: Helped.

Today's lesson is the past tense. But Ghyslin is thinking about the future. He's 19 years old and he arrived from Haiti two months ago. He wants to learn English quickly so that he can go to medical school.

GHYSLIN Louis Jeune: The country give you many opportunities, you are supposed to take them. Because I'm young, I'm supposed to go in the college. I want to be a doctor.

Just to get a space in his English class, Ghyslin had to show a lot of determination. He was turned away from four language schools because they were full. He finally scored a spot here at CAMBA.

JOE NEGRON: Thank you for calling CAMBA, how may I help you?

Camba is a community organization in Flatbush, Brooklyn, that offers 17 free English classes a day. Joe Negron works at the front desk. He spends most of his time telling people classes are full.

NEGRON: OK. Thank you. . . . Our morning and evening sessions are currently closed, because that's how backed up we are.

Negron says it typically takes three to six months for students to get off the waiting list.

NEGRON: And I don't think I should have a waiting list of a thousand-odd people to come in to school and learn English. Not with the money the United States has. Especially always advocating, "Learn English. Speak only English." All right, well, help them out.

Scenes like this play out in cities across the country. The government spends $570 million a year on adult education. That number hasn't budged in three years. But an estimated 11 million adults need to learn English.

Anthony Tassi heads Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Office of Adult Education. He says when federal immigration legislation is finally passed, he's even more students will crowd New York's classes.

Anthony TASSI: If we were to have immigration reform enacted on the federal level which provided additional incentives or requirements for citizenship, I think our programs would be flooded.

Even some of those who want to limit immigration to the United States also want the government to fund more English classes for legal immigrants. They even suggest offering tax credits to employers who offer instruction on the job. The problem is that most of these low-wage workers are working for multiple employers with unpredictable schedules and little job security.

Take Mariella Lesheck. She's from Poland. She recently went to sign up for a class at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Mariella LESHECK: Because I would like speaking fluently and perfectly.

But Lesheck couldn't find a class to work with her babysitting and housecleaning jobs.

LESHECK: Is possible on a Saturday going?

TOM PATTERSON: No. . . . And you work during the day so you can't go here. And this one's a beginner so you can't do that. This one's too advanced, you can't do that. I don't think that we have a class for you.

Tom Patterson coordinates the library's English programs. He often has trouble placing students because they work so many hours.

PATTERSON: Immigrants work like crazy, crazy. . . . This schedule just doesn't work with what they have to do in their lives. So, I mean, you can tell from her she wants to learn English, but we don't have anything to offer her.

Lesheck shrugs and says she'll keep trying to find a class. She heads back to her Brooklyn neighborhood, where she says everyone speaks Polish.

LESHECK: Bye-bye. Thank you.

In New York, I'm Jessie Graham for Marketplace.

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