I'm currently working on my Social Justice project where I chose the topic "Language Access for Immigrants and Refugees". There are several components to the paper but one of them is to interview a local person who is part of this sort of social movement.
Today I interviewed the director of the program in which I volunteer teach for at St. James Cathedral here in Seattle. The St. James Immigrant Assistance program provides free ESL classes to populations within the immigrant and refugee communities here in the Seattle area. They do their best to provide tutoring and assistance for citizenship or really whatever they might need (within an ESL scope).
The interview went very well and it helped me understand the chaotic and unstable lives that these populations lead. For one I started off this project comparing my experience of being on a visa and living as an English instructor in Korea with the experience of being an immigrant here in America. Of course, my experience in Korea was not as dire or squandered as what people experience here. But generally I can say I know what it means to possess an "alien card" and have to be processed at immigration. With that said immigrants and refugees live very squandering lives where the choices they make are hard and their options difficult.
The person I interviewed talked about how for those undocumented and within other levels of immigration status the information they receive is very misinformed and they often just fill in the blanks. Also that we have to consider their self-identification and what they mean when they call themselves an immigrant or a refugee. It might means something different or not have such a "strong" label to it.
Overall, you can see that this is a very complex issue and that in the end I do believe that when you give immigrants access to ESL classes they learn more than just how to fill out applications or what to say at the doctor's office. You give them empowerment tools to navigate and respond to the new society they are living in. Yes, a lot of people say that for the most part immigrants tend to stay in their enclaves and the use of English is very minimal in their society. But what about their rights and the ability to speak up about them? Or the ability to understand better how the society around them reacts to them? I think in some sense there needs to be more advocacy of the role English plays in their lives and that it is in a sense giving them more than just language skills to be a "better assimilated person in our society" but equal access to the same needs that native speakers have.
Certainly if I had known Korean well enough, in Korea, I could have advocated better for the policies in my contract or the housing issues I faced from time to time. But my choice to not learn Korean was based upon my lazy attitude and indifference to spending my free time that way. For immigrants and refugees in America their choice to not learn English may be from a busy life, family in need of care and possibly even fear of being sniffed out and turned in to immigration.
All of this leaves me asking, "What more can I do?" "Am I doing enough by teaching 1 hr a week to a group of elderly Russian immigrants?" I wish I could be there when they need English help or somehow show them around town and give them more resources and places to use English. But overall I really wonder how I can make a better impact and the person I interviewed told me that the most important thing is to speak up when someone says something wrong about this population or issue. I think that is very important to do.
Yet I also think as I enter into the ESL job market in America, I would like to work for immigrant and refugee groups, if possible. I am aware that these jobs are not as common as the instructor positions at universities or private schools, but maybe I can work towards that track.
Anyways, tidbits to think about as time goes by.