A massive influx of immigrants, both legal and illegal, into North Carolina has thrust thousands of non-English speaking students into the public school system, leaving local teachers and administrators with a daunting task in their efforts to educate this expanding population. “In the last 10 years, 1.4 million new residents settled in the state,” concluded a study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington D.C. “The equivalent of adding five Raleighs…[t]his large-scale population growth is bringing traffic, pollution, overcrowded schools and lack of affordable housing in the state, decreasing quality of life and straining vital natural resources.”
FAIR’s Immigration Impact Report also said the trend was seen some years ago when, in 2002, statistics showed attendance in the Limited English Proficiency/English Language Learning instruction programs jumped 494 percentage points within 10 years. And the numbers keep climbing. The United States Census Bureau estimates that the Latino population increased by 138,654 in North Carolina between the 2000 Census and July 1, 2004, from 378,963 to 517,617, a gain of nearly 37 percent, with an estimated 300,000 of those being illegal immigrants.
The problem has become so acute that officials have named it one of the major challenges facing county government across the state. “Hispanic and Latino residents are transforming county services,” said a report taken from the Long-Range Planning and Visioning Project after the N.C. Association of County Commissioners School of Government met in Chapel Hill in August 2004. “Hispanic and Latino populations present social, cultural and fiscal challenges for county health and public education services. Counties are asked to help educate and assimilate the growing Hispanic population who come from different parts of Mexico, South America and Central America.”
The 1982 Supreme Court decision of Plyler v. Doe forced public schools to provide both documented and undocumented youngsters a primary and secondary education. This “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy has overwhelmed school systems throughout the state and left them searching for solutions. North Carolina State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee says dealing with the huge numbers of immigrants coming into the state is extremely challenging. “It’s very overwhelming,” he said. “I get a lot of complaints from superintendents and principals from all over the state that tell me these children are interfering with the education process of the other children.”
Jack Martin, Special Projects Director for FAIR said the children of illegal immigrants degrade instruction to American kids. Not only do the children of undocumented workers put a strain in the classroom, Martin said, but these children also empty the pockets of valid North Carolina citizens who are responsible for footing the enormous bill. “[The illegal immigrants] are breaking the piggy bank,” he said. “In North Carolina it costs $450 million for educating children. It’s a big expense and the taxpayers are picking up the cost.” Martin’s assessment isn’t off base. In 2004, the United States General Accounting Office estimated the per-pupil expenditure for illegal alien children was $6,000.
Chairman Lee said there are also additional costs associated with educating immigrant children, including the support staff and social workers needed at individual school sites to help the children. “It’s a tremendous financial burden,” he said. “It’s being borne by the taxpayers who underwrite the cost of them.”
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