Monday, July 27, 2009

A brief introduction to this blog...

Dear Readers,

This blog is arranged a little unconventionally since my main impetus for creating it was to make available a series of thirteen articles on local immigration that I wrote in 2007-2008 for the Ripon Commonwealth Press. Other than the first and most recent item, "Is Spanish the New German?" which I wrote for another venue, the rest of the articles are arranged from first to last chronologically rather than the other way around. While any of them can be read alone, I recommend reading them in the order in which they are presented as the themes build on each other.

While the articles no longer represent "breaking news" locally, I welcome your comments and expect to add occasional items.

My best to you,

Is Spanish the New German?

The following is the text of my presentation at a panel discussion entitled "Is Spanish the New German?" at the Fond du Lac Public Library as part of the "Hola!" series. (January 2009)

We hear a lot of talk about unprecedented influx of immigrants, along with unprecedented challenges of assimilation and linguistic adaptation. I want to start by challenging the idea that our challenges are in fact new or unprecedented.

Having a lot of immigrants is not new.

In fact, in absolute numbers our foreign-born population today is about half what it was around 1890, when it peaked at over half a million residents. In percentage terms, in 1850, the foreign-born were 36% of the population. Currently there are about 250,000 foreign-born in Wisconsin -- less than 5% of the population. (Population Notes, vol. 2, issue 4)

Having a lot of immigrants from one country or ethnic group is not new.

In 1900, German-born residents constituted about half of all foreign-born residents of WI. About 34% of WI’s population was either German-born or of German descent. The percentage was much higher in some eastern parts of the state. (B. Peterson, pers. comm.)

That many of these immigrants do not speak English well or at all is not new.

In 1850, Minnesota’s sample ballot was printed in eight languages. (League of Women Voters, Immigration Study Packet, 2007)

There was a time, well into the 20th century, when a salesperson for a farm implement dealer or input supplier in much of Eastern WI needed to speak German to be successful.

That the private and public sectors both have reasons to accommodate non-English speakers is not new.

Just as farm input suppliers offered service in German, so did government agencies. There are people alive today whose deed to their Wisconsin farm is in German. (L. Heimerl, pers. comm.)

The Union forces in the Civil War had entire regiments that were commanded largely in German! (B. Peterson, pers. comm..)

That some immigrants resist learning or speaking English continue to work and learn in their native language is not new.

As late as the 1950s there were German speaking schools in Wisconsin supported by parents who did not want their children to lose their language or their culture.

In the late 1800s (?) there were at least 4 daily papers in German published in Milwaukee alone! There were other German papers throughout the state.

For Wisconsin and Missouri Synod German Lutherans, speaking the language of Martin Luther was a matter of faith as well as culture, and many parishes had their own schools to make sure their children were learning German. Milwaukee had many “ethnic” Catholic parishes, not just German, each with its own language and favorite saints. Many public schools taught German, by popular demand. (B. Peterson, pers. comm.)

An 1870 article in the New York Times reported that “The German General School Association, which, about a year since, was formed with a view of agitating for the introduction of the German language in the public schools as a branch of instruction, held a meeting, last evening at Liederkranz Hall…” (NYT, Oct. 20, 1870)

That immigrants seeking to hold on to their language and culture face social and political obstacles to doing so is not new.

Those meeting in Liederkranz Hall evidently had a rather testy discussion of why they weren’t getting further in their efforts and how they might meet with a better reception. One suggestion was to branch out and welcome other ethnic and linguistic groups to join them to create a larger constituency for school reforms. Multicultural education a la 1870!

That many people are alarmed by what they see as the likelihood of linguistic and cultural erosion and the possible failure of new immigrants to is not new.

In 1900, there was considerable alarm among some native-born residents that our culture and language would be eroded by all the Germans who had come.

Back in the 1920s when a daily paper in Milwaukee tried to publish a weekly supplement in Norwegian, it received so many threatening letters and subscription cancellations that the newspaper abandoned the supplement.

That some people question the political, cultural and linguistic loyalties of immigrants is not new.

German immigrants got lumped into the general category of “foreign agitators and anarchists” during the political turmoil of the late 1800s, and were largely blamed for the Haymarket murders in Chicago in 1886. Our post-9/11 “Freedom Fries” find their echo in WWI’s “Liberty Cabbage” (ie. sauerkraut).

Germans, like Hispanics more recently, have also sought to prove their loyalty. They too translated the American national anthem into German in the mid-1800s in a version with strong folk roots that continued to be sung for decades. In 1917, during World War I, novelist Booth Tarkington and other prominent citizens of Indianapolis brought a petition protesting the fact that, in the bilingual public schools of their city, the Star Spangled Banner was being sung in German translation. (Frances Ellis, "German Instruction in the Public Schools of Indianapolis, 1869-1919. Indiana Magazine of History 50 (1954): 372, cited by B. Peterson).

The point I want to make here is, today’s immigration realities and linguistic challenges are in no way unprecedented, and neither are people’s fears about them.

It seems laughable today to think of Norwegians and Germans as a worrisome cultural threat, but to many they seemed so at the time. Now Old World Wisconsin and Setende Mai and brat fries celebrate the very cultures that were often viewed with suspicion and hostility when they first arrived.

Let’s look at some of those fears, and let’s see what the data says about today’s crop of immigrants.

“They don’t want to learn English”
By an overwhelming margin (92%), Latinos say it is very important that English be taught to children of immigrant families. In fact, their commitment to this idea is greater than that of non-Hispanic whites --87% of whom agree that it is very important that English be taught to children of immigrant families.

As telling, perhaps, is a look at how many people said teaching English to immigrant children is not important. Among Latinos, only 2% held this view compared to 27% of non-Latinos.
(Pew Hispanic Center/Kaiser Family Foundation National Survey of Latinos: Education.)

“Everywhere I go I see signs in Spanish, labels in Spanish, forms in Spanish – they won’t learn English that way!

A Pew Hispanic Center survey of Hispanic adults revealed that about 47% spoke primarily Spanish, about a fourth were bilingual, and about one fourth were English dominant. (Pew Hispanic Center, March 2004) The perception of many English speakers that Hispanic immigrants are not learning English arises to a significant degree because the continuing influx of immigrants means that there is always a new cohort that speaks virtually no English. A population of immigrants that does not speak English may persist indefinitely mainly because it is being continually replenished by new arrivals. It is less a reflection of older arrivals failing to learn English, though many immigrants who arrive as adults will never become fluent in their new language.

Because Fond du Lac County lacks the long-term Hispanic presence that many larger cities have, it is likely that the Pew statistics understate the Spanish-dominance of our local Hispanic population. Most came within the last decade and many have not been in the U.S. long enough to achieve competence in English.

In general today’s Hispanic immigrants are following the pattern of earlier waves of immigrants. Typically, a high percentage of the members of the first generation who work outside the home become functional in English within about a decade. Those who stay in the home, typically women, may attain a lower level of competence. Their children, however, typically speak English better than their native language by the time they finish high school, and their children – the third generation, are almost always English dominant and may not speak their grandparents’ and parents’ first language at all. (There are local exceptions to this, such as in parts of Texas, California and Florida where Spanish speakers may be the dominant linguistic group, but these conditions do not pertain to Fond du Lac County.)

Studies show that it takes most ELL students 7-10 years to achieve roughly grade level proficiency in academic English. Most ELL children sound conversationally proficient within a couple of years, but this masks shallow vocabularies. (Suarez-Orozco, Learning a New Land).

Nationwide, Mexicans have among the lowest levels of high school graduation and college attendance of any group. However, this may understate their academic attainments if parental education and income are taken into account. Second generation Mexican children, about one third of whom grow up living below the federal poverty level, usually exceed their parents’ level of education, frequently by a large margin.

What are some ways in which today’s Hispanic immigrants and the circumstances they face differ from earlier waves of immigration, and how might this affect assimilation, linguistic and otherwise?

Today’s Hispanic immigrants are mostly less educated than the average German immigrant was. A significant minority is highly educated, possessing advanced degrees or special skills. They may or may not find their credentials recognized by employers, however.

If Hispanic immigrants express great commitment to learning English and ensuring that their children learn it in school, nevertheless many parents are challenged to support their children’s linguistic development given their own limited education. On average, Hispanic children suffer a significant “achievement gap” in school compared with their white, native-born counterparts.

Today’s Hispanic immigrants face a far more restrictive immigration policy than was historically applied to Germans. Because the US in recent years has annually offered only 5000 visas for unskilled workers when the economy has generated roughly half a million low-skill jobs per year, many Hispanic workers have chosen to come illegally to get the jobs they know exist. Their undocumented status impedes assimilation on many levels, and in my experience correlates significantly with a failure to invest in learning English.

Today’s Hispanic immigrants – like all immigrants and native born Americans – face a very different economy than that found by earlier waves of immigrants. Gone are the opportunities to claim a homestead and farm with little start-up capital. Gone are many of the high-paying, low-skill factory jobs that propelled many European immigrants into the middle class. Today’s immigrants, as well as low-skill, less educated native-born, mainly have access to jobs that will not lead to economic security or social advancement in the short to medium term.

Getting to Know the Neighbors: The Faces of Immigration

Shortly after I moved to Ripon in 1998, a trickle of Hispanic immigrants started to arrive in town. As one of the relatively few bilingual Riponites around, I started getting phone calls from Hispanic acquaintances requesting help interpreting at medical appointments, at work, and in many other settings. I came to know a number of Hispanic families and those who worked with them when I volunteered for a collaborative ESL/tutoring project run by several local agencies. I met more working with the Ripon Public Library on a project to create a series of bilingual cultural exchange events at the library.

One day I would find myself interpreting during a medical emergency at the Ripon Medical Center, another day I would be smashing piñatas with 40 American and Mexican kids at the library. One day I’d be helping a family register their son for the new four year old kindergarten, another day I’d be teaching the American national anthem and learning the Mexican national anthem while we celebrated both Independence Days at the library. One day I interpreted for an arrest, another day I attended a Hispanic child’s birthday party. I found myself inside factories, inside the labyrinthine bureaucracy of our immigration system, and inside the intimate lives of people who would otherwise have been strangers to me.

It’s fair to say that I obtained a richer, more multi-layered view of this community than I could probably have obtained in any other way. Our experience of the place we live in has a great deal to do with our race, our class, our ethnicity, our education level, and the nature of our work. Until I started interpreting for immigrants, I had not experienced Ripon as a person with brown skin, or a 6th grade education -- or a college degree and specialized skills that employers paid no attention to. I had not experienced Ripon from the inside of an ambulance, or as a third shift factory worker, or as an individual living in dire poverty.

What I have seen over the last nine years has provided me with many of my most cherished Proud American moments. I have witnessed deep compassion and respect for our newcomers. I have seen individuals who exemplify the vision of hospitality offered in both the Christian and Hebrew Bibles -- and Islam, for that matter. I have seen everything from cheerful acceptance of cultural differences to enthusiastic celebration and exploration of them. I have witnessed professionalism, neighborliness, and just about every public virtue you can name.

I’ve also seen racism and hatred: a white woman spitting profanities at a group of Hispanics, kids calling immigrants “dirty”, a protester handing out “litter box liners” with an image of the Mexican flag on them. I’ve seen exploitation: workers treated with casual contempt, threatened and intimidated into accepting wages and working conditions no one should have to endure. I’ve also seen native-born Americans experiencing these same things. Working with immigrants has provided me with many of my most painful Ashamed American moments, too, and has been a humbling reminder of just how partial and limited my understanding of my own society has been.

I’ve seen first-hand just how complicated the whole issue of immigration is. I’ve met some legal immigrants who I wish our immigration procedures had weeded out, and illegal immigrants whose courage, work ethic and family values would put most of us to shame – and who face no prospect of legalization despite the obvious gifts they bring. I’ve seen places where our immigration laws have functioned, and others where the system is clearly broken -- punishing the behaviors we say we want, rewarding the behaviors we say we don’t want, failing to protect legitimate national interests, causing widespread, unnecessary suffering -- and costing immense resources to achieve these unfortunate results.

The goal of this series, “Getting to Know the Neighbors: The Faces of Immigration” is to explore Ripon’s immigrant community and its relationship to the broader community. It is to tell the stories of these new neighbors – from Asia, Central America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Canada – in their own words: why they came, how they got here, and what they have found. They will include professors, migrant workers, entrepreneurs, factory workers and students. We will explore how our national immigration policies have shaped their choices, and ours. I will interview legal and undocumented immigrants, those who have achieved citizenship, those who have sought it, and those who have no chance for it under our current laws.

In-depth profiles of a number of local immigrant households will alternate with articles addressing broader issues: the economics of immigration, current immigration policy, immigrants in Ripon’s schools, and how local institutions are responding to the reality of immigration. Ripon’s experience will be put in a national context, but the focus will be on the immigrants themselves, and on the perspectives of those who work with, hire, serve, teach, and otherwise deal in various ways with our new neighbors.

In the end, I have come to believe that the experience of immigrants in Ripon offers an extraordinarily rich lens through which to view our community in all its beauty, strengths, and failings. How we welcome immigrants – or don’t – says a lot about who we are. This series – “Getting to Know the Neighbors” – is thus also about Getting to Know Us. Sometimes it is through the eyes of strangers that we see ourselves most clearly. It is my hope that this series will spark a rich dialogue in Ripon about not only the “strangers” among us, but also about who we are and who we aspire to be.

Restaurateur Finds Peace, Opportunity in America

Mefail “Mike” Ibraimi is a well-known face in Ripon. First at Kristina’s Café, which he bought in 1999, and more recently at the Red Apple Family Restaurant, Mike has been feeding Riponites some of their favorite food for years. Mike’s immigration odyssey started in 1972 in Macedonia (part of the former Yugoslavia), and took him through numerous European countries, to the US, and eventually to Ripon.

Mike and his family found life very hard in Macedonia back in the 1970s. Cultural and political prejudice against ethnic Albanians, and communist government intolerance of religion and political dissent were his primary reasons for leaving his country of birth. “They treated Albanians very badly. We had no rights, not even to study at the university. Only Serbo-Croations could go to university. From second grade on, they made us speak their language. They discriminated against our religion [Muslim.] The communists were against both churches and mosques, and if you criticized the communist government, they would put you in jail. I had a cousin who cooperated with the communist government. They gave him schooling – he was an excellent student. When he was done with his studies he was fluent in Serbo-Croation and Albanian, and he was a good translator – that was his job. Then in 1982 when they found out he was Albanian and that he had been in Pristina (Kosovo) when there was a revolution for more rights and freedom, they killed him. He was 25, with a wife and two kids, and they killed him.”

Mike, who lived and worked on his family’s small farm in Macedonia as a young man, had decided to leave his country before something like that happened to him. “I left on December 20, 1972. I went all over – to France, Italy, Germany, Austria.” When he arrived in Austria, he made contact with a Christian church that had a ministry of helping immigrants. Within a few months, all the arrangements were made for Mike to emigrate to the United States. “At that time I didn’t even have one dollar. They [the church] paid most of the fees to apply for a visa to travel to the U.S., and they did the paperwork and paid for my airfare. I paid only $70, three months after I arrived in Chicago.”

“July 11, 1973 – I call it my second birthday. It was a very special day in my life – I took a plane from Vienna to New York.” From there, Mike traveled to Chicago, where his youngest brother and a cousin were waiting for him.

Mike found work quickly. “I got a night job in a factory, and a day shift in a Denny’s restaurant. I worked at the factory for nine years. I learned a lot at Denny’s. I worked in the kitchen, I learned everything. Then I worked at a McDonalds. I learned everything there, too. For the first day, they have you do nothing but cook French fries, then they have you cook quarter pounders, then they put you on the line. After three weeks I surprised everybody. That McDonalds had eight cash registers. It was very busy, but I learned how to set up, how to cook, how to serve. If you want to learn, you learn a lot. But I learned more at Denny’s – we’re similar here at the Red Apple, except we do more from scratch.”

In 1981, eight years after Mike arrived in Chicago, his immediate family was able to join him. They would have liked to come sooner, but getting passports from their native Yugoslavia took years. “They [the government] gave you a hard time. They treated Albanians bad, and they made you wait years to leave.” Mike’s family did not experience significant delays or difficulties at that time getting visas for the United States.

In 1982 Mike moved his family to Monroe, WI, and later to Janesville, Lake Mills, and finally Ripon in 1999, owning restaurants in each location. Mike’s son, Nick, left Ripon and Kristina’s last spring to help another relative with a restaurant in Lodi.

Mike found his passion in the restaurant business. “My family loves the kitchen – my father, my brother, me, my son – people know they’re going to eat good when they see him! And last week, I was in St. Louis where a nephew just bought a restaurant – he asked me to help him set it up.”

Besides his successful restaurants, Mike appreciates other things about living in the U.S.: political freedom, entrepreneurial freedom, friendly people. “I had never been free in my life before I came here. In my country, you can’t say things. Life here is good – I have good friends. They come in here, they’re happy to see me. You have to be friendly – business is not just for one day! If you’re friendly, you make friends!”

“I am very pro-US. Every Albanian is. The US saved our lives – almost two million of us in Kosovo [during the recent war in the Balkans]. Thank God for Bill Clinton! He decided smart and fast what to do, and he saved a lot of people. If you go there, you will see that every Albanian has two flags: an Albanian flag and an American flag.”

“I got my US citizenship in 1994. All my family has citizenship now, and for me, it’s been more than good. Here we have more freedom, you can find jobs everywhere, you can move around, and you’re treated the same. Jobs are number one. In Europe it’s not so easy – you can’t just go to another city and find a job like you can here.”

Mike’s entrepreneurial spirit is typical of many immigrants, who start businesses at two and three times the rate of native born Americans.

Mike’s experience of the U.S. immigration service was good. Being a refugee from a communist country during the height of the Cold War undoubtedly helped, as did the energetic efforts on his behalf by a church experienced in immigration work. The financial assistance, too, was important in his successful application for a visa. “Immigration [now called the US Citizenship and Immigration Service] worked out for us. We did it by the rules. I waited seven months – I could have come illegally but we did it right. Now it’s harder though. The immigration service is so busy – overdone busy. You can see the papers in their offices, big stacks like this [indicates 5 feet high]. You can wait for years now. It helps if you are in a war, if you are in danger. A lot of people in our situation got permission right away to come.”

Mike’s experience was that the system worked for political asylum cases (though currently only a small percentage of asylum seekers are granted this status.) He suspects that those coming for economic reasons will not have as easy a time, and government statistics bear this out. For example, according to the State Department, even those economic immigrants with an employer sponsor and firm job offer could easily wait 5 years or more for permission to enter the country legally.

Mike emphasizes the importance of patience, of having personal contacts in Immigration, and the necessity of keeping up with changes in immigration law. “If you are coming for economic reasons, the US isn’t going to let you all in – people need to be patient. We had nothing – we were hungry. I understand that people who are hungry don’t want to wait, but you have to be patient. It also helps to have personal contacts with people in Immigration – just sending a letter doesn’t help. Some people don’t want to wait, and they don’t want to follow the rules, and they don’t follow the news in the papers. You have to pay attention and know the system and play by the rules.”

"Immigrants Not Draining Ripon's Resources"

Nationwide, foreign-born individuals make up about 12% of the population, and of these, nearly one-third are Mexican. While there are no definitive numbers available for Ripon, most observers agree that the number of Hispanic immigrants rose sharply starting in 1998-99. From being virtually invisible locally in 1997 to comprising nearly 6% of school age children today, they are sufficiently numerous to justify special school programs, new products on the shelves of local retailers, new employment patterns in area businesses, bilingual materials in some area institutions, and new cultural offerings. While there are other, non-Hispanic immigrants as well, including Asians, Africans, Canadians and Eastern Europeans, they are far fewer in number locally than the Hispanic immigrants.

How have Ripon’s public institutions been affected by immigration? In this article, we’ll look at three: the Ripon Police Department, the Ripon Medical Center, and the Ripon Public Library. In a future article, we will explore the Ripon Area School District’s experience with immigrant children and families.

Law Enforcement

Nationwide, statistics show that first generation immigrants commit fewer crimes on average than native-born Americans. In Ripon as elsewhere, however, certain patterns emerge. Chris Stieber, Captain of Ripon’s police force, notices that “Since the Hispanic population has gone up, we’ve had more traffic violations. A number of immigrants haven’t gone through the process of getting a license – maybe they don’t know how. English may be a barrier. Especially in the summer, we have an unusually high number of cases involving immigrants who are operating without a license, or after their license was revoked.” The higher rate of violations in the summer suggests that many of these workers may be seasonal construction, food processing or agricultural workers who are not in the area year-round.

Stieber does not notice any other correlations between immigrant status and crime. “As the Hispanic population has gone up, we’ve had an increase in the number of crimes involving Hispanics [both as victims and perpetrators], but you’d expect that. I couldn’t say that it’s disproportionate.” He does note that the department has faced occasional linguistic challenges. “We do try to be sensitive to language and cultural needs. Any time we have a victim or a perpetrator who is an immigrant we try to get an interpreter – often a family member. Other times we get community members. Some of the younger members of our department know some Spanish. The language is an issue, but it’s not a big problem for us.”

The Department of Homeland Security has recently been trying to obtain the voluntary cooperation of local police forces in immigration enforcement, and is offering special training for cooperating departments. In the past, only immigration police were charged with enforcement of immigration laws, not regular police departments. Supporters of the DHS effort say that illegal immigration is a crime and all law enforcement personnel ought to be working to enforce immigration laws. Critics of the new DHS efforts to involve local police forces say that it will create a climate of fear that will make immigrants less willing to come forward as witnesses in crimes, lead to widespread racial profiling, reduce trust and goodwill in the community towards police officers, and take already-scarce law enforcement resources away from more important crime-fighting activities.

Stieber’s view is that “We haven’t been influenced by Federal edicts. We treat people the same. We’re not going to put special emphasis on any one group of people. I’m all for cracking down on immigrants who are here to break the law. They ought to be accountable like everyone else, and I don’t want them in this country if they came here to commit crimes. My personal feeling about people who are here illegally but not causing trouble, I’m not so sure I see that as a crime. I don’t see using the policing resources of a small department like us to crack down on illegal immigrants – we don’t have the manpower for that.”

Health Care

Ripon’s hospital is another community institution that has experienced the impact of immigration in recent years. Many observers fear that an influx of immigrants -- who may not speak English, whose health may be poor, who may lack health insurance and/or the funds to pay for the care they need -- will put a strain on the system, particularly emergency departments which are required by law to treat all comers regardless of ability to pay. Certainly there have been widely publicized cases, particularly in Texas border towns, where poor and undocumented immigrants have disproportionately burdened emergency services, sometimes shutting hospitals down entirely.

On the other hand, according to extensive nationwide studies, immigrants (both documented and not) are actually more healthy and less likely to seek emergency services than their American counterparts. Overall, these studies suggest they are unlikely to greatly affect emergency service departments in the interior of the country. How about in Ripon? Should we be worried?

Certainly, immigrants are a felt presence at the RMC. Tami Keenlance, Director of Acute Care Services at RMC says she has seen a significant increase in the Hispanic population coming into the hospital. She considers that the language and cultural barriers can be a challenge, but notes that “All staff are now trained in cultural diversity; we are better equipped to handle it.” She also notes that during the summer, with an increase in tourism, the hospital serves immigrants and visitors from a wide range of countries.

In the past the hospital made use of Spanish-speaking community volunteers to interpret. Over time, as the job grew, this approach became increasingly unworkable. “Now we have Language Line,” Keenlance says – a phone-based interpreting service that can handle a wide variety of languages pretty much instantly on a pay-per-minute basis. Many patients also bring other family members and friends to interpret for them, often making Language Line unnecessary.

Michelle Fuerch, professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Ripon College and long-time volunteer interpreter for immigrants, says that in her experience, most of Ripon’s year-round Hispanic residents, both documented and not, have health insurance through their employers. She has never interpreted for one who didn’t.

Does the Medical Center experience a financial loss from its immigrant patients? By law the hospital is prohibited from asking patients about their legal or immigrant status, making precise numbers hard to come by. However, Marcia Baenen-Goplin of the RMC business office suggests an answer. “Immigration affects us,” she says, “but not to the extent that it does in states like California, Texas and Florida. The whole problem of uninsured patients affects us, and that problem is growing nationwide. Immigrants are a part of that, but they’re not a huge part of it. The majority of our uninsured patients are Americans.”

She says the problem for RMC tends to be seasonal. During the summer and fall, larger numbers of temporary and migrant workers, who typically lack a primary health care provider, show up at the hospital – usually the Emergency Room – for services. “Usually when they come in, they need the treatment. They don’t abuse the system. But our Community Care [reduced price charity care] and bad debt always go up while they’re here.”

She notes that many immigrants find the form they must fill out for Community Care to be daunting, and even those who may qualify for financial assistance in some form are afraid to ask for it. There are Medicare funds for catastrophic care available to some immigrants, but the paperwork to obtain this assistance, and the vulnerability that many migrant workers feel, means that few seek help. Baenen-Goplin says, “I feel bad for these people. You don’t want to scare them away, so you beat around the bush a lot trying to find out if they are eligible for assistance. It’s hard to help them – so many of them don’t even have a telephone!”

It appears that where immigrants have been a burden for RMC, the problem is poverty and lack of insurance more than immigration status per se. Native-born Americans without insurance similarly burden the system, and on a larger scale than immigrants. Overall, Baenen-Goplin concludes, “Immigration affects us. Does it affect us a lot? No.”

Library Services

Linda DeCramer, the Children’s Librarian, has long been an advocate of enhanced services for Hispanic immigrants. In 2001 she wrote a grant to jump-start the development of a Spanish language collection, and to offer a series of bi-cultural, bilingual family events to welcome Hispanic newcomers to the library. She visited local factories to recruit (mainly Mexican) collaborators, and involved these volunteers in defining the shape of the collection. As it turned out, their needs and interests were very specific, including such items as a bilingual dictionary of construction terms, video-based ESL materials, popular magazines, and bilingual children’s materials and picture dictionaries. Over time, the library also developed a Spanish-language library card application and informational brochure.

Have these outreach efforts been successful? According to Chris Smieja, another library staffer, “There are more immigrants coming in now than in the past… It’s good to see people using the library! They don’t always need our Spanish application, but I’m glad we have it.” The library staff also notices that Americans hoping to teach their children some Spanish are also frequent users of the bilingual children’s materials.

Ben Sprague, Circulation Supervisor, notices that the Spanish language collection has been circulating more lately, and that like the rest of the community, the immigrant community appears to be making good use of the computer resources the library offers.

“I would hope,” says DeCramer, “that we can become more of a community resource for the immigrant population. I would hope that people can feel comfortable here, and that they would know of the many resources that we have. I want us to be on their radar!” She points out that many larger businesses now have their job applications on-line. “We want people to know they have a place to come and use the computers.” USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Service) also has its materials on-line, and the only way to make USCIS appointments is on the internet. The library sometimes links Hispanic computer users with bilingual community volunteers who can help with their immigration or job-related computer work.

Currently, DeCramer is facilitating an informal committee that is meeting to address the recent loss of local ESL and family literacy services. The committee, composed of a diverse group of Advocap and Ripon Area School District personnel, Ripon College and UW-Oshkosh students and faculty, community activists and immigrants, is an illustration of the kinds of synergies DeCramer hopes to encourage – and is part of her vision of what a public library should be. “You never know who you reach, but in hindsight, those interludes [like the bilingual, bi-cultural programs, and the current committee meetings] create bonds. It’s important to try to lift everyone up. That was Carnegie’s goal: to give everyone free access to the same level of services and information.”

Migrant Worker Endures Long Hours to Better the Life of Her Family

Ernestina Cataneo has been coming to Ripon to work as a migrant for half of her 30 years. She was born in Texas, lived most of her childhood in Mexico, and came to Ripon for the first time with her father when she was sixteen years old. She spent the summer working in the Green Giant factory, and then in the fall her father left her in the care of acquaintances so she could attend school for a year.

“It was bad,” she says of that lonely, difficult year away from her close-knit family. “I didn’t know any English, and they didn’t teach me much at the school. Now it’s different, but then everyone spoke pure English and nothing else.” She never stayed through the year again, but has continued to return each year for the canning season.

“Each summer we came – it used to sometimes be May, or as early as April, and we stayed until November. My dad started work first. Now it’s later – we start in June and they let us go in October.”

When Ernestina was 18, she met the man who became her husband working at Green Giant. She and Guillermo have continued the same lifestyle together, working for as long as they have jobs at what is now the Seneca plant in Ripon, and returning to Del Rio, Texas for the winter. “We work seven days a week, twelve hours a day, as long as there’s product. If they don’t have any product [green beans, potatoes, carrots or beets] then there isn’t any work, but we often go a whole month without a day off.” She works a day shift and her husband works a night shift so there is always someone to take care of one and a half year old Marianne, and nine-year-old Giselle.

“I have worked outside, in inspection, in the warehouse, and putting tops in the canning machine. This year I checked salt and temperature and weight of the cans. My husband works in the warehouse, stacking crates on pallets twelve hours a day. The first few weeks, he gets very tired, but after a while he gets used to it. In Texas he works at whatever he can find – construction, cutting lawns, whatever. We never know if he’ll get work or not, so what we earn here is sometimes all we have for the year. We have to save a lot.”

Ernestina ears $7.20 an hour with no benefits, although she would get Workman’s Comp if she were injured on the job. She and her family return to Texas every year despite the hardship, because that is where her family is. “My mother was sick for a long time, and I’m from there – all my family is there. That’s why we go back.”

Ernestina considers how life has both changed and stayed the same during her years of coming to Ripon. “Well, I’m a woman now, not a young girl, and I have my own family. I’m not alone!” She notes a big difference between her experience of school in Ripon and her daughter’s recent years here. “Before, there was a little communication with the families, but not much. Now they pay a lot more attention to the Hispanic kids, and try to help them learn more English. That helps a lot. Giselle loves it here, she doesn’t want to leave. She’s cried a lot about it. In Texas, the students and teachers are mostly Mexican. I think they have a different character in the schools there. The teachers here have a really good character. Giselle feels comfortable asking for help, she’s not afraid. There, they scare her.”

In part because of Giselle’s experience at the Murray Park Elementary School, Ernestina would consider staying here year-round. Her mother has died, reducing the pull of Del Rio. But her husband, Guillermo, disagrees. “I like it here, but he hates the cold!”

Thinking about her life as a migrant, Ernestina says, “Well, it has its advantages and disadvantages.” She looks around her at her spare apartment, without table, chairs, couch, normal beds, bureaus, or carpets. “I don’t have any furniture,” she says. “It’s hard not to have things, but when you have to move so much it’s hard to have them too.” The family of four sleeps on one double and one single air mattress, and has a folding cot and playpen in the living room – the only additional furniture in the house.

“I can’t make a lot of friends either, because I leave them. And I never know what’s going to happen the following year.”

At least, she notes, she doesn’t have the added insecurity of illegal status. Ernestina is a citizen, and her husband is a legal resident. “He’s whiter than I am, and everyone looks to him to speak English, but I, the brown one, speak more English and I’m the American citizen!” Her husband obtained legal residency status through a 15 year wait that began when he was three years old.

Ernestina wishes that more Americans understood what drives Mexicans to come here. “A lot of people here don’t understand our lives. We come to better the lives of our families. A lot of people seem to think we want to leave our families behind. It’s not that we want to, it’s that we have to.”

“I don’t have much education, and the only work I know is this. This has been my whole life. It’s all I know, and I like it, and that’s why I do it. What I would like is that Giselle study so she can have a different life than I have. I want her to have something to live by, a way to take care of herself, when I’m not around.”

This interview was conducted in Spanish and the quotes translated into English by the author.

Ripon’s Immigrants and Ripon’s Schools: Learning Together

One day in 1998, Michelle Fuerch, professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Ripon College, received an unexpected phone call in her office. Roosevelt Elementary School needed a Spanish interpreter, now. A young Mexican boy had pulled the fire alarm, not knowing what it was, and no one was able to explain to him what he had done, or the seriousness of it.

Fuerch laughs as she remembers that first flustered call. “Luckily I was available!” Nine years and countless parent-teacher conferences, committee meetings, federal mandates and immigrant arrivals later, Fuerch can speak to the evolution of Ripon’s schools in their response to immigration. “The schools have gotten a lot more effective at providing what these families need,” says Fuerch. “From the get-go – from the first call I got in my office – there has been tremendous support in the schools. Luckily, we have a superintendent with vision who takes this issue very seriously.”

Initially, the District was blindsided by the sudden arrival of significant numbers of children who did not speak English. In 1999, the sudden, unexpected registration of fourteen small Spanish speakers in Barlow Park Elementary School (BPES) – the day before classes started – jolted the system. Myra Misles-Krhin, Principal of the school, responded in several ways over the next few years, including hiring for each grade a classroom teacher who spoke some Spanish, and a native Spanish speaker aide for one of the kindergarten classrooms.

“It was apparent,” she says, “that hiring bilingual personnel would help our ELL students transition more effectively and would help our students be successful.”

The District, in collaboration with Moraine Park Technical College and Ripon College, also got involved in providing an ELL (English Language Learner) class for adults, with simultaneous children’s enrichment activities, though this program ended after less than two years. Guidance counselor Jocelyn Hoeper successfully applied for a grant for translation services, allowing the Parent Handbook, BRAVE registration information, Title I documents and a variety of individual letters to be translated professionally.

The BRAVE program was also conceived in part as a response to the special needs of Ripon’s ELL population. This program – which obtained substantial start-up funds to serve an at-risk and high-need population (including native English speakers as well as ELL students) -- has from its start six years ago also benefited hundreds of children who are not “at risk” but who take advantage of the varied educational opportunities available. Says Jolene Meyer, the District’s BRAVE Coordinator, “Immigrant participation in BRAVE has steadily grown. Students who aren't native English speakers find particular assistance through the homework help offered. The adults in their households may find it challenging to help their students with their school work.” This year also saw the registration of some Hispanic children in a BRAVE French class – which some see as evidence of a positive language learning experience and a heightened interest in and awareness of the importance of learning languages.

Like the BRAVE program, the District’s new four-year-old Kindergarten serves both native English speakers and ELL children. There were many reasons for its creation; one of them was that it would be a way to expose immigrant children to English earlier so that they would enter regular Kindergarten more ready to learn with their English-speaking peers.

Most recently, the School District in partnership with Ripon College produced a DVD in both Spanish and English to welcome and orient newcomers to Ripon and its school system, with basic information on everything from registering children for school to shopping at the thrift store to setting up a bank account.

Many critics of immigration worry that the costs of educating immigrant children will bust the bank. Certainly, immigrant children who do not speak English at home may require years of special instructional services before they are able to function at the same level as their native-born peers. There is no question that providing these services can be costly – and that these costs are borne primarily locally. While numerous studies show that immigrants (including illegal immigrants) are overwhelmingly a net gain for the economy at the national level, [see upcoming article on the economics of immigration, RCP January 10, 2008] they can still be, under some circumstances, a net economic loss locally. That is because a high percentage of the taxes they pay go to the federal government, and a high percentage of the services they consume (education is by far the biggest) are paid for locally with little federal support.

How do the numbers work out in Ripon?

There are currently 109 immigrant children enrolled in Ripon’s schools; just under 6% of the student body. (For the purposes of this article, this figure includes foreign-born children who came here within the last ten years, and children who were born here to immigrant parents and who are thus citizens.)

Public schools are required by federal law to enroll children regardless of their legal status. State and federal laws also mandate the provision of special language services in Districts with a sufficient population of ELL (English Language Learner) students – which Ripon has. Last year an ELL teacher was hired for the Middle School. This year Murray Park added an ELL teacher, and the District also has two ELL aides.

According to Superintendent Zimman, fulfilling this ELL mandate costs the District nearly $200,000, of which 97% comes from the District’s budget; less than $6,000 comes from the federal government. On the other hand, this is by no means the District’s most costly special program, nor its largest group of students with special needs. “State and federal laws require special education services that are considerably more expensive than ELL services” points out Zimman.

In total, the District spends on average about $9,600 in instruction and support per student per year, and receives about $6,600 of that in state aids. While determining state aid, property taxes and expenditures per student in the District is complex and almost invariably involves some apples-to-oranges comparisons, it is not at all obvious that the taxpayers or the School District would be better off financially without the ELL students. The extra $2000 per student for ELL services is much less than the $6600 state aid that follows them to Ripon.

Zimman asserts, in any case, that the District would have worked to meet the needs of its immigrant students with or without the federal mandate. "In addition to the economic benefits that our community gains from having educated ELL students and families, we have an ethical obligation to help children of immigrant families since many of our own ancestors were non-English-speaking immigrants who relied on tax-supported public schools to assist them in becoming productive members of our American society."

That said, the District is working to reduce the cost of providing necessary services by having more of them, like interpreting, provided “in house.” While the District currently pays an hourly fee for some interpreting services, as a longer term strategy for handling this need, the schools are trying to hire more regular staff who are bilingual. Randy Hatlen, principal of Murray Park Elementary School, says, “I feel strongly that we need to have someone on staff that speaks Spanish.”

Don Hones, father of three Ripon schoolchildren, professor of Education at UW-Oshkosh and regional leader in ELL/bilingual teacher licensure, suggests that to be really effective, the Ripon Area School District should make it a high priority when hiring teachers at all levels to seek out candidates who have ELL certification, and/or who are bilingual, and preferably at least some of whom have the same ethnicity as the students they will be serving. “Our schools need to represent our community, and our community is changing. It makes an enormous difference for a kid to see someone of their own background working in the school – and not just as an aide or assistant, but as a teacher or administrator” says Hones.

In fact, Ripon has tried to do this, but with limited success. According to Zimman, the ELL plan adopted by the School Board requires that each staff vacancy be posted with a stated preference for ESL certification. Unfortunately, he says, “We've been advertising that way for two years and haven't had any qualified candidate for any position with those credentials apply to our district.” As an additional strategy, the Board approved a measure that helps pay the tuition costs for any current staff member who enrolls in the UW-Oshkosh ESL teacher certification program. One teacher has completed that program and another is currently enrolled.

As for bilingual teachers and administrators, he says “we've had only one applicant.” The candidate withdrew her application when she learned that she would have to live in the school district and become part of the community as an administrator. “It's just really hard to find Spanish-speaking teachers and administrators,” concludes Zimman.

Hones counters that the District needs to meet people halfway if it is serious about diversifying its staff. “Other teachers and administrators don’t live in the District – why impose this requirement on a position with so few qualified candidates to begin with?” he asks. He suggests that the District’s best way forward may be to groom one of its own immigrant graduates to work in the system rather than chase after the limited number of currently qualified people from elsewhere.

There is no question that Ripon has been challenged to meet the needs of some of its newest students, and that meeting these needs has cost the District money. However, there is also fiscal good news: 70% of immigrants arrive during prime working age. As former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan points out, we thus haven’t spent a penny on their education, but we are reaping the benefits of their productivity.

In Ripon, there are a number of businesses that would be hard pressed to function without substantial immigrant labor. These companies make up a significant portion of Ripon’s industrial tax base. The cost of ELL services for immigrant children thus must be measured against the economic benefits generated by immigrant workers who are keeping the doors open for several local businesses. The Seneca plant, for example, employs about 90 seasonal workers – most of whom are immigrants who come without families and cost the School District nothing.

And what do Ripon’s classroom teachers themselves have to say? Dana Scott, who has been involved in serving local ELL adults and children for nearly a decade, says “I got into education solely to work with this population. Living in Ripon – small and homogeneous – I enjoy the diversity immigrants bring.” She also remembers her own experience abroad – just how bewildering and often frightening it was – and hopes to help ease the transition for Ripon’s immigrant children as an ELL instructor at MPES. Finally, she wants her children to be prepared for life in a changing world. “There’s a whole wide world out there! We’re moving towards a global society whether we like it or not. Having immigrants in our schools fosters an interest in other cultures, other languages, other countries. They enrich us all.”

Kathryn McMillan, a third grade teacher at MPES with ten ELL students, shares Scott’s enthusiasm. She doesn’t see her immigrant children as a problem, as a cost center, or as empty linguistic and cultural vessels waiting to be filled. She finds delight and fascination in who they are. “Their ethnic background so helps them build community! Their ways are different – having the ELL kids in my classroom is so rich! Without them, my American kids wouldn’t come to understand their own culture. We experience Hispanic culture in our classroom: they talk about their beliefs, their parents bring in Mexican treats, and they’re really different than ours! We study festivals of lights around the world, and the Mexican kids talk about theirs. They bring their culture, we bring ours, and in my classroom we try to tie it all together. We have a community here!”