Immigrant and refugee rights: What does it mean for students in 2018?

Last week I attended the  National Immigration Integration Conference, where I presented at a pre-conference session on the importance of community organizations serving immigrants to engage in education policy. I also reflected on how protecting immigrants and refugees requires building power with and for their communities, which in turn impacts all our communities. This year’s conference theme was Justice for All, which resonates with the work I do in promoting multilingualism for all students and Emerging Multilingual Learners, who tend to come from immigrant and refugee backgrounds.

This conversation is especially important as we look to the year ahead. 2017 has been a particularly difficult year for immigration sentiments as a result of the 2016 presidential election. Enacting policies such as a travel ban from majority-Muslim countries and ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals are just a few formal, national jabs at the newest Americans. Other informal jabs occur in the classroom.

Today, 8.4 percent of Minnesota students are identified as English Learner. For much of our state’s history, multilingual classrooms were common.  Besides our indigenous Ojibway and Dakota populations, many European groups settled in Minnesota including: French, German, Swedish, Irish, and Norwegian. Newspapers, church services, and schools were easily multilingual. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that classrooms shifted toward more English-only practices, including violence toward American Indian students who spoke their language in school.

Today in Minnesota, “justice for all” must mean that our newly arrived and indigenous neighbors have the same opportunities to succeed in one of the most livable states in the country. However, our schools are not fulfilling the charge of educating all. Only 64 percent of classified English Learners graduate, and students with limited or interrupted formal education have fewer opportunities to complete an education since they arrive in 6th grade or later. Long-term ELs—those who do not exit services in five years—are on the rise, which negatively affects their academic achievement and access.

Although history has shown that immigrants attempt to, and often succeed, in learning English here, it is often accompanied by erasing the importance of preserving native language. By consistently placing English as a higher value is the U.S. and labeling Emerging Multilingual Learners as “Limited English Proficient,” it denies the rich linguistic assets immigrants and refugees bring. This is one reason why we have shifted from the concept of “Limited English Proficient” to English Learner in education settings. In other words, multilingualism and native language development are just as important for immigrant students’ rights and education success.

English is the medium for communication in the U.S., but it is not the country’s official language nor is it the most widely spoken in the world.

The United Nations declared language as a right in 1996 stating that all people have:

  • the right to be recognized as a member of a language community;
  • the right to the use of one’s own language both in private and in public;
  • the right to the use of one’s own name;
  • the right to associate with other members of one’s language community of origin;
  • the right to maintain and develop one’s own culture

While there are linguistic rights accommodated in the U.S. through translated documents and interpreters in schools, the maintenance and development of students’ language and culture is not as integrated in some schools. As we look ahead to how students will be affected by policies and beliefs, it’s important to understand that fostering native language development is a way to see language as a right and a resource. This  not only helps the Emerging Multilingual Learner, but allows EMLs to help their monolingual classmates gain new skills and understand a bigger world.

Native language development and bilingual education is language justice, a civil right, and a human right.

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