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Not waiting for Congress to help immigrants


Charlene Dukes, president of Prince George's Community College in Maryland, chats with Gustavo Torres of CASA de Maryland after a panel discussion on immigrant workers.

Photo: Matthew Dembicki​​

See video, below​

​While Congress mulls over immigration reform, local, state and even federal efforts are moving ahead to help both legal and undocumented immigrants integrate into communities, particularly through education and workforce preparation.

The polarizing issue has stymied federal lawmakers, but at the grassroots level communities are taking action as the population of immigrants continues to grow, with the U.S. being home to 20 percent of all immigrants. Many of those efforts include community colleges and local organizations providing basic adult education and English as a second language (ESL) courses to help immigrants start on a path toward higher education or job training.

In Maryland—which last year passed state legislation to help certain undocumented immigrants gain some benefits, such as in-state tuition rates—Prince George’s Community College’s (PGCC) International Education Center has increased the number of ESL courses and GED programs.

Incoming immigrant students enroll in a variety of programs, but healthcare—which has a shortage of qualified skilled workers—is the most popular for that population, said PGCC President Charlene Dukes. However, English is a barrier for many of these students.

Getting on track

To help those students, PGCC and four other community colleges in Maryland created an accelerated program—modeled on Washington state’s I-Best program—that provides language and skills training.

A call to help undocumented immigrant students​

Even though Latinos are the fastest growing population in the U.S., not all the immigrants attending PGCC are Latinos, nor are they all undocumented, noted Dukes, who participated on an Aspen Institute panel this week regarding immigrant workers. Her college also has a large contingent of students from Africa, and many immigrant students already have higher education credential in their home countries, she said.

PGCC has developed partnerships with CASA de Maryland, a 40,000-member organization in the Washington, D.C., area that provides services from advocacy to workforce training. It sends its adult students to the college for training and the college provides instructors.

When it comes to immigrants, community colleges offer an open door​

To date, about 1,000 immigrant students have gone through the program, resulting in an increase in their average hourly wages from $10 to $15, according to Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA.

The Obama administration’s directive last year to defer deportation of certain young undocumented immigrants is also helping students. Of the 4,000 immigrant students enrolling in basic adult education at PGCC in fiscal year 2013, about 1,000 were "deferred-action" students, Dukes said.

A 'tsunami' ahead

Two-year colleges have been especially effective in helping immigrants acclimate into their communities, both socially and economically, said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow on policy at the Brookings Institution. She noted that the services offered to immigrant students are open to all students, not just immigrants

Federal program offers hope for undocumented students​

“The role of community colleges is really important in bringing this group up,” she said.

That role will only increase as the immigration population increases, Torres said. Foreign-born students attend community colleges more than any other type of postsecondary institution. During 2004-05, about 25 percent of the nation’s 6.5 million degree-seeking community college students were foreign born, according to a U.S. Education Department report​.

With the number of foreign-born workers expected to increase by 9.9 million between 2010 and 2030, Torres said community colleges will need to be ready for a “tsunami” of immigrants who will look to them for basic skills, as well as advanced training for jobs in industries that already have worker shortages or that expect to have them as baby boomers retire.

Aspen Institute panel discussion about immigrant workers