Educational Opportunities for Adult Immigrants

I didn’t watch any of the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on immigration yesterday but I would guess from a quick scan of the written testimony that there wasn’t any significant discussion about the role of adult education in immigrant integration.

It appears that the best opportunity might have been during the testimony of Michael Teitelbaum, who served as the Commissioner and Vice Chair U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform back in the 1990s. For his written testimony, he attached the commission report—which is now over 15 years old. But the commission’s assessment of the state of adult education could have been written yesterday:

The Commission urges the federal, state, and local governments and private institutions to enhance educational opportunities for adult immigrants. Education for basic skills and literacy in English is the major vehicle that integrates adult immigrants into American society and participation in its civic activities. Literate adults are more likely to participate in the workforce and twice as likely to participate in our democracy. Literate adults foster literacy in their children, and parents’ educational levels positively affect their children’s academic performance.

Adult education is severely underfunded. Available resources are inadequate to meet the demand for adult immigrant education, particularly for English proficiency and job skills. In recognition of the benefits they receive from immigration, the Commission urges leaders from businesses and corporations to participate in skills training, English instruction, and civics education programs for immigrants. Religious schools and institutions, charities, foundations, community organizations, public and private schools, colleges and universities also can contribute resources, facilities, and expertise.

In his written testimony, Teitelbaum said he “was pleased to learn only recently that many of recommendations designed to facilitate the integration of legal immigrants, “including a welcome guide for new immigrants, orientation materials and information clearinghouses, and facilitating access to adult education in civics and English” had been implemented after the Office of Citizenship was created in the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security. (my emphasis)

But while it’s true that USCIS has developed many of the materials and resources envisioned by the commission (and has offered some grants for adult EL/civics education), there has been virtually no progress over the last 15 years to significantly expand educational opportunities for adult immigrants. Funding for the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), the primary vehicle for federal investment in adult education in the U.S. (which includes a set-aside for EL/Civics) has been stagnant for years; in fact, taking inflation into account, it’s actually gone down.

Moreover, the EL/Civics grant program, which began as as a demonstration grant at the U.S. Department of Education, isn’t actually authorized by WIA. The set-aside has been approved by Congressional appropriators for years now, but the lack of authorization leaves the program more vulnerable to elimination than other programs under WIA. Proponents have been trying to get it authorized in the next version of WIA, but WIA reauthorization itself  has been delayed for about a decade. (A modest—but significant—win for adult education in the immigration reform bill would be to finally codify and authorize the EL/Civics grant program in WIA.)

I don’t think Teitelbaum meant to suggest that the adult education recommendations made by the commission had been achieved, but anyone not familiar with the state of adult education, WIA and EL/Civics education might have been given the impression from his testimony that significant progress has been made made in this area, which is not the case.