Markey pushes for ESL classes
Says businesses should help teach immigrants
Thursday, November 3, 2005
Lisa Kocian 508-820-4231 Globe West
Congressman Edward J. Markey this week called on businesses in Boston's western suburbs to fund English language classes for all foreign workers who want them.

"One of the big complaints you hear about immigrants is they don't speak English. . . .  We have to face the fact we have 10 to 12 million illegal, undocumented workers in the country, and they're not going back," Markey said Monday at a Framingham conference on immigration.

"The Changing Face of Massachusetts: Implications and Opportunities for MetroWest" conference was organized by the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce at the request of Katie Murphy, chairwoman of the Framingham Board of Selectmen, in response to growing concerns and questions about illegal immigration in the area.

Murphy said she hopes the conference, which drew about 115 business, political, and immigrant leaders, will be the beginning of a broader discussion on immigration.

A Malden Democrat, Markey also represents several communities in the western suburbs including Framingham, Natick, Watertown, and Waltham.

There is not enough political will in either party, he said, to spend the estimated $50 billion annually needed to enforce the laws currently on the books.  So the immigration system needs to be changed.

But while the federal government works on that, Markey said, local business leaders still have a role to play.

Every year about 800 immigrants take classes in English as a second language through the Framingham Adult ESL Plus program, but an additional 700 people are being turned away because there isn't enough room, he said.  Meanwhile, local business owners frequently call Markey's office saying they could use more foreign workers.

"You can't want more immigration and then not fund it," said Markey.

The ability to speak English is tied to how well newcomers do here, according to a study from the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, one of the cosponsors of the conference.

That study, released in June, found that immigrants who are native English speakers make an average of $38,526 annually, while immigrants who don't speak any English make an average of $9,064, based on 2000 US Census data.

Because newcomers are such an important part of the Massachusetts economy, Markey contended, when they do well, so does the state.

The immigrant population has been growing fast in Massachusetts and particularly in the western suburbs.  Framingham, a popular destination for Brazilian immigrants, has the 12th highest percentage of newcomers among communities in the state, with more than 20 percent of residents listing a foreign birthplace.

Since 2000, the influx of newcomers has prevented both the state population and the labor force from shrinking, according to the MassINC report.

Nicolas Sanchez, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, said he felt that the conference, which featured nearly a dozen speakers, was one-sided.

A former Framingham School Committee member and candidate for state Legislature, Sanchez emigrated from Cuba about 45 years ago.

"My main concern is they fail to recognize there is a connection between the illegal immigration and the dropping population" of nonimmigrants, he said, referring to the MassINC findings.

Longtime residents are leaving, in part, argued Sanchez, because of the effect illegal immigrants have on schools, taxes, and wages.

He said school quality declines because so many resources are spent on bilingual education or other services associated with illegal immigrants, taxes jump because of the increased need for services, and wages decline because illegal immigrants are willing to work for less.

"We cannot even start a conversation unless these issues are addressed," said Sanchez, who said that several like-minded people sitting with him submitted questions, but none were read during the audience participation part of the forum.

One of the panelists, Jamie Holmes, general manager of the Crowne Plaza Boston-Natick hotel, said he relies on legal immigrants for his entry-level workforce.  His company offers full reimbursement for English classes taken by staff members, who speak about 30 languages, he said.

Holmes said immigration can't be stopped.  "What we need to do is capitalize on it."

The country relies on undocumented workers, who make up about 5 percent of the total workforce, according to Geoffrey O'Hara, executive director for the eastern region of the US Chamber of Commerce.

His group supports an immigration reform bill championed by senators Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona.

"We simply need to match our immigration system to reality," said O'Hara, who predicted the bill could pass early next year.

Markey outlined the McCain-Kennedy bill, saying it would allow people now working illegally in the country to apply for a green card in six years -- but only after they pay their back taxes and undergo health and criminal background checks.

The bill would also step up border enforcement and increase funding for ESL classes.

Vera Dias-Freitas, a Brazilian immigrant and new citizen, told her story of coming to America about 20 years ago to further her education.

She wasn't quite done with high school, so at age 22, she went back, supporting herself by cleaning houses.

She then enrolled at MassBay Community College, where, she said, friends laughed at her dream of opening her own business.  But before she graduated, Dias-Freitas opened a jewelry store, which is still in downtown Framingham.

She emphasized that even though she was offered financial aid in college, she declined because she wanted to pay for her education herself.

"I am part of the changing face of Massachusetts," she said.  "I'm very proud to be an American."

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