“I Speak English”: Dispelling Myths about Undocumented Students

Jaime L. Del Razo is a postdoctoral research associate at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

Summer 2013, Voices in Urban Education author Jaime L. Del Razo discusses misconceptions about the differences and similarities of ELL and undocumented students.

The invention of language has had both beneficial and detrimental effects on our human society. Our ability to communicate with one another to share ideas, thoughts, plans, and dreams has contributed greatly to the development of the human race. But language has also been used to discriminate, oppress, and single out populations whose language does not conform to that of the dominant group – an experience to which many immigrants can attest. In the United States, the priority of learning English has been and continues to be instilled as the most important tool that immigrant populations must acquire. This assumption is considered to be especially true when we consider the population of undocumented students.

But there are dangers in generalizing all undocumented students as English learners and assuming that English is the most important issue for their success. For one, many of them already know English, having grown up in the United States. This generalization also distracts us from the more urgent issues that they are facing, like funding their college expenses, securing employment before, during, and after their college education, and living with uncertainty, since they are under the constant threat of removal from the United States.

The undocumented population is a diverse group, and many undocumented students were brought to the United States at young ages (Pérez 2009, 2012; Pérez & Cortés 2011; Passel & Cohn 2009; Olivas 2012). Many undocumented students have grown up in the United States, and they are, as President Obama said, “Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper” (Preston & Cushman 2012). Though some can be classified as English learners, many entered our public school system in the early grades and acquired English as their primary language. Yet many are incorrectly classified as English learners because of their immigration status.

Undocumented students live with the constant threat of deportation from the only country they have ever known. They face enormous hurdles, paramount of which is financing their college education (Perry 2006). Recently, some undocumented students have been granted work authorization under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, but many still do not qualify for this two-year work permit, resulting in the continued postponement of important contributions this group of students could and want to offer. As the current Comprehensive Immigration Reform senate bill continues to be debated and amended, DREAMers, as many undocumented students are calling themselves,* all across this country wait for that opportunity to be legitimized as full members of a society that they helped and will continue to help create.

DREAMers have made significant civic contributions to our society and challenge the popular media’s negative, parasitic portrayal of the undocumented population. Chicano Organizing & Research in Education (CORE) has been one of the few scholarship providers specifically providing funds for college-bound, undocumented students.** To date, CORE has awarded ninety-two scholarships totaling $46,000 across the country. These scholarships have been funded by grassroots fundraising events in which the average donation is approximately $25.

1. The name “DREAMers” comes from the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, a bill introduced in Congress in 2001 that would grant conditional permanent residency, under certain conditions, to undocumented high school graduates who came to the United States as minors. Some states have adopted versions of this legislation.

2. For more information on CORE, see www.ca-core.org.