Trump’s Actions on Immigration Bring Uncertainty to English-Language Learners

March 22, 2017

Since President Trump was elected on a pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border and to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, Angela has been afraid to come to class.

She doesn’t like to be out in public, where strangers have told her to "go back to your home country" of Colombia. So she limits her movements to the essential: dropping her son at the local elementary school, running to her class in English as a second language at the Immigrant Learning Center here in Malden, picking him up, then heading straight home.

"You feel like people are looking at you like you’re a criminal," she said, tearing up. "Sometimes I feel guilty, even though I never committed a crime."

Maria, a Brazilian classmate, said she worries that the program, with its big sign out front, could be a target of immigration raids — or violence.

"Everyone knows this is where the immigrants are," she said. Both women asked that their last names not be used because they are not in the United States legally.

Yet the women, and 420 other immigrant and refugee students enrolled at the center, keep coming to class. They’re determined to learn the language that could land them a job and a shot at the American Dream. Five hundred more immigrants are on a waiting list to get in.

That’s not the case everywhere. Across the country, ESL programs are reporting drops in attendance, ranging from the small to the significant. At Louisiana Delta Community College, in Monroe, less than a quarter of the 200 enrolled students are attending class; at Linn-Benton Community College, in Albany, Ore., no one has enrolled in the ESL program since January. Most weeks before then, there were five or six new students. In San Diego and San Jose, Calif., program directors have seen declines of around 15 percent, compared with the fall semester and last year.

In Tupelo, Miss., the number of Hispanics enrolled in GED and parenting classes recently fell from 25 to three, following raids in Jackson, 175 miles southwest, and the deportation of four local residents. Nakimia Agnew, coordinator of the family-learning program at the Family Resource Center, said the organization has been calling clients to reassure them "that this is a safe place," but has seen no increase in attendance.

"Right now, everyone is hysterical," said Andres Enriquez, ESL-services director at Louisiana Delta.

The week after the election, he had to cancel classes because most students didn’t show up. To calm fears, the program held an informational session with federal immigration authorities and Catholic Charities to discuss the president-elect’s policies and immigrants’ rights.

Afterward, students started returning to class, Mr. Enriquez said. But attendance plummeted again after Mr. Trump took office and "border-patrol cars started showing up around town," he said. The program is planning another information session, and Mr. Enriquez has taken it upon himself to check on the rumors that can spread panic among his students. In February, after a student texted him to ask if it was true that there had been a raid at a local restaurant, he went to the restaurant to find out (it wasn’t true, though the manager did say business was down).

"The biggest problem is misinformation — one little thing getting blown out of proportion," he said.

Fluctuating Enrollments

At Joliet Junior College, in Illinois, where enrollment was down 5 percent year-over-year in January, Brenda Roland has been reminding students that Chicago is a sanctuary city. That means "they don’t need to be afraid that someone is going to come in and pull them out of class," said Ms. Roland, instruction coordinator at the college.

“We can't say anything really reassuring, because we just don't know. It's been stressful for the staff, too.”

But Karen Oakley, director of English-language programs at the Immigrant Learning Center, where Angela and Maria study, said program directors cannot make guarantees to anxious students.

"We can’t say anything really reassuring, because we just don’t know," she said. "It’s been stressful for the staff, too."

Even within individual states, the impact of Mr. Trump’s immigration rhetoric and executive orders isn’t being felt uniformly. In both Illinois and California, some ESL programs have experienced drops in attendance, while others have witnessed growth.

At Triton College, in River Grove, Ill., for example, enrollment is down 15 percent from last spring. But at Moraine Valley Community College, in Palos Hills, Ill., just 20 miles south, it's up 9 percent.

"Our community is actually feeling an urgency to sign up for these classes," said Clare Briner, director of communications for Moraine Valley.

Bob Harper, director of adult education for the Campbell Union High School District, in greater San Jose, Calif., said that while "anxiety is having an impact on attendance" in his program, his colleagues in nearby Santa Cruz report that "some students want to learn English more now than ever — because of the uncertainty."

And some citizenship classes are seeing sharp growth. In Chicago, enrollment in citizenship classes at the Pui Tak Center nearly doubled from January to March; Centro Romero, a nonprofit organization in Chicago, gained 49 new students in January and 53 in February, up from a dozen most months.

‘Scared as Hell’

In Southern Maine, refugees are "scared as hell," but still coming to class, said Mariah Bushnell, who teaches ESL in Windham and Portland to immigrants from the Middle East and Somalia.

"The people who made it out of refugee camps, out of war-torn countries, are here because they’re tenacious, they’re resilient," she said.

Still, some program directors say they expect enrollment among students from the six countries named in President Trump’s latest travel ban to drop if the ban takes effect. Two federal judges have temporarily blocked the 90-day ban on immigration by citizens of six Muslim-majority countries; the White House has vowed to appeal the decisions.

“The people who made it out of refugee camps, out of war-torn countries, are here because they're tenacious, they're resilient.”

Kelly Roberton, ESL-department chair at Spokane Community College, in Washington State, said he expects only 90 refugees to settle in Spokane County between now and October if the ban takes effect, down from 90 in January alone and 80 last month.

"The lack of new refugees will be a hit to the program," he said. "We’re definitely expecting some dropoff."

At the same time, the divisions created by the president’s travel ban are creating tensions in some classrooms. Leila Palis, an ESL and English instructor at Paradise Valley Community College, in Phoenix, said she was surprised to find support for the travel ban among Christian students from the Muslim-majority countries subject to the ban.

"The election and new administration have caused tensions between students to become more apparent in the classroom, making it very tricky for instructors to navigate," she said.

Instructors in other classrooms are grappling with how to meet the emotional needs of undocumented children and the children of undocumented parents. At Illinois’s Elgin Community College, Colleen Stribling, an associate professor of English as a second language, said she dealt with the topic of children who are "emotionally distressed about the current climate" for the first time in one of her early-childhood classes.

Meanwhile, back in Malden, the Immigrant Learning Center is struggling to keep up with the always-high demand for its ESL classes. Denzil Mohammed, director of the center’s Public Education Institute, thinks that points to the "resiliency and perseverance" of students like Angela and Maria.

"What made them leave everything behind to essentially start life all over again in the United States," he said, "is what keeps them coming to class: the courage and determination to do what it takes to create better lives for themselves and their children."

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her at Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.

Correction (3/23/2017, 11:25 a.m.): The article originally misspelled Nakimia Agnew's first name and omitted her title at the Family Resource Center. The text has been updated.